400 rally for more attention to city schools from officials

O'Malley's effort criticized

Sharpton among speakers

January 22, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Despite frigid temperatures and bone-chilling winds, nearly 400 people gathered at the front steps of the Baltimore school system headquarters yesterday, urging lawmakers and city and school officials to pay more attention to the city's struggling public schools.

"We are right in this. We are right to stand up for our children," said Tyrone Powers, chairman of The People's Plan Inc., a community organization that helped organize the rally. "Education must be our first priority."

Several community groups, union representatives, religious organizations and education advocates joined with Powers in planning yesterday's rally, which spilled out onto North Avenue and disrupted traffic for several minutes -- an act of civil disobedience meant to honor the memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., organizers said.

With bullhorns and picket signs, the protestors cheered and pumped their fists in support of the day's theme: more money for schools and better education for children.

Among yesterday's speakers was civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton, who appeared in Baltimore just hours after announcing his candidacy for president in Washington.

Sharpton said the problems of Baltimore's schools that others described -- proposed budget cuts, unsafe drinking water, deteriorating buildings and thousands of failing children -- have "national ramifications."

And they are conditions, he said, that contradict President Bush's education reform legislation called No Child Left Behind.

If the city schools' budget is cut to eliminate a projected $31 million deficit, "well, there's going to be a lot of children left behind," Sharpton said.

Powers said news of the budget deficit and proposed cost-saving remedies -- including furloughs for all school system staff members and increased class sizes -- underscored the need for such a rally.

The hope, he said, is that officials will begin to devote more money and attention to the city schools, instead of allowing budget cuts.

"All the issues are connected," Powers said. "Because if we're underfunded, there's no way we can address lead in the water. There's no way we can address our children reading from textbooks that are 20 years old."

Water from drinking fountains at some schools has tested positive for lead.

Although schools chief Carmen V. Russo proposed the budget cuts to trim the deficit and the school board voted to approve them, many of the speakers and participants at the rally aimed their criticism at Mayor Martin O'Malley. They said he has made other city issues higher priorities than education.

Signs in the audience were emblazoned with slogans, such as "Furlough the Mayor" and "We choose academic coaches over new police cars."

Vernon Joines, a teacher at Southwestern High School, brought to the rally about a dozen of his students, many of whom will be of voting age next year.

"They need to know that the mayor doesn't see them as being important," Joines said, adding that O'Malley seems more concerned about downtown development and improving the police force than the city's children.

"We have Baltimore Believe. The mayor needs to give them something to believe in."

O'Malley said his top priority is improving the entire city -- making it "cleaner, safer and a better place for children to grow up and learn."

The mayor said he has increased his schools budget, worked to secure more computers for classrooms and encouraged local businesses to partner with schools.

"One would be sore-pressed to say my administration has not done our part to carry this ball forward," O'Malley said.

Powers said yesterday's rally was just a beginning.

Organizers also are planning a protest at Camden Yards on the Orioles' Opening Day.

"There should not be any money flowing toward games in this city until there is money flowing for our children," Powers said. "Pressure will continue to increase until education is made the No. 1 issue."

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