The mood to protest

February 13, 2003

THE CITY school board's midwinter budget fiasco has had a consequence no doubt unanticipated at North Avenue school headquarters. It has heated up parents, teachers and other school employees, who have been turning out at rallies and school board meetings in numbers not seen for years.

In the most recent example, a few hundred people let it be known at a North Avenue school board hearing that hastily planned staff furloughs designed to reduce a $31 million budget deficit were not acceptable. The board, impressed with the turnout and the argument, quickly promised that only the top 30 or so bureaucrats in the system would be furloughed.

Top administrators handled the budget crisis so poorly -- laying off 268 temporary workers just before Christmas, for example -- that they triggered a host of grievances, many unrelated or indirectly related to finances.

Parents are unhappy about poorly functioning school improvement teams and water fountains contaminated by lead. They don't know what's going to happen to summer school, or even if there will be any. And parents and advocacy groups feel excluded from the system's decision-making process. It is, after all, a public agency, but it often doesn't act like one.

There's another cause of this awakening. He's a 41-year-old professor named Tyrone Powers, a former FBI agent and organizer extraordinaire who has filled a leadership vacuum in the loose coalition of city school advocacy groups. Since his organization, The People's Plan, brilliantly organized the first public rally Jan. 21, Mr. Powers has been sought out by Mayor Martin O'Malley, schools chief Carmen V. Russo and other city leaders. In a few short weeks, he's become a force to reckon with.

Mr. Powers employs a mild form of civil disobedience -- blocking traffic -- to call attention to his goal, which is to put the city's school needs on everyone's lips. "We've been sleepwalking," he says. "I want the mayor to be more of an advocate for education. I want everyone to know our desperate needs."

It's one thing, of course, to organize a couple of successful rallies and quite another to sustain the interest. Mr. Powers' rhetoric so far has been a bit short on specifics. He'd do well to concentrate on the Thornton Commission's $1.3 billion commitment to public education in Maryland. Protecting Thornton from budget-cutters is vital to the financial health of city schools. It's an appropriate outlet for the newly building energy.

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