Protest delays school board meeting

Crowd assails panel for financial crisis

Police remove the most vocal

December 10, 2003|By Liz Bowie and Tanika White | Liz Bowie and Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Angry parents, students and laid-off workers delayed the start of Baltimore's school board meeting for at least an hour last night, taking over the room with a demonstration calling for the dismissal of the board that they hold accountable for a financial crisis.

More than 300 protesters filled the first floor of the school system's headquarters at 200 E. North Ave., and several - carrying bullhorns and microphones - took the nine seats reserved for board members and declared themselves "the new board of the Baltimore City school system."

With wild clapping and stomping, protesters chanted, "Lay off the board! Lay off the board!"

The group that took the board members' seats was escorted out by police and security officers, but the protests over the layoffs of more than 700 system employees continued inside the room and in the front lobby as a row of at least a dozen police officers barricaded the front entrance, refusing to let more people inside.

No one was arrested. But with board members waiting to come down from the building's fourth floor, the police restored order by pulling out the most vocal demonstrators - some of them carried forcibly by their arms or legs.

One protester, Wendy Foy, and her elementary school-age niece and nephew huddled together and cried as two police officers tugged on them to leave - until Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English gave up her seat to allow them to stay in the crowded room.

"Shame on you!" the crowd chanted, as police removed protesters, including Mitchell Klein, head of the political action group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which spearheaded the demonstration.

ACORN's membership made up much of the crowd, but hundreds of people representing a range of school interests - from the teachers union to children angry about the loss of after-school music lessons - were there to express opposition to the layoffs that began last week.

"We are here tonight to call for the dismantling of the city school board for their failure to provide an adequate education for our children," said Sultan Shakir, an ACORN member who sat in a board member's chair.

"This is what democracy looks like," one group yelled.

"Who Spent Our Teachers Paychecks?" a protester's sign read.

"We want our teachers back," said 10-year-old Harold Martin, a fourth-grader at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, who said his teacher needs help controlling her classroom because it has too many pupils.

Last night's meeting was the first since Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland announced she would have to lay off up to 1,000 employees to keep the system from going bankrupt.

The protests came even as the board was receiving more bad financial news.

Eliminating the jobs of more than 700 employees has cut spending by only $11 million this year, school staff said last night.

Another $10 million to $12 million in savings will be needed to balance this year's budget and reduce the $52 million deficit by half.

"We are now in a fiscal crisis," Copeland said after the board assembled in the meeting room - an hour past its scheduled meeting time.

The system is expected to perform a second round of layoffs late next month or in early February, but Copeland asked last night for board approval to furlough workers up to as many as 10 days as well.

Copeland also said she will reduce the number of teachers at the middle and high schools because enrollment systemwide has declined by 1,000 students since Sept. 30, when school officials submitted official enrollment figures to the state.

Late last month, a subsequent count found enrollment to be 90,818 students - about 3,500 fewer than projected. Most of the enrollment drop was in middle and high schools.

Copeland said state legislators have suggested that a state takeover of the system is likely if the board and the administration cannot get spending under control.

Also, Robert R. Neall, a former state senator advising the system about its financial emergency, said in a separate interview last night that he was still finding problems in the budget, including $3 million to $5 million to pay substitute teachers that had not been budgeted.

The steps taken to reduce staff, Neall said, have helped to right the system financially, but he added, "There is some doubt in my mind whether we can do it or not."

Unaware of Neall's predictions, some speakers at last night's meeting questioned whether the layoffs and proposed furloughs would improve the system's financial picture.

"How do we know that you won't furlough us and then lay us off anyway?" said union leader English.

Many suggested that the deficit was a result of underfunding by the state and not the fault of employees.

"The state owes us hundreds of millions of dollars, and you all need to get up out of your chairs and go get it!" shouted Alan Rebar, a teacher at Highlandtown Elementary School No. 215.

High school students from the Baltimore Algebra Project, a student-run tutoring organization, suggested one radical idea to stave off further layoffs or furloughs: The school system, they said, could temporarily divert teachers' state and federal tax withholdings to cover the deficit.

"The Constitution says we should be getting an adequate education," said Chris Lawson, 15, a sophomore at City College. "If they think that breaking the Constitution is better than breaking the tax laws, well, I don't see how they think that."

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