`We want our education'

Drumbeat: Anxious students, parents and teachers raise voices in protest as city schools grapple for a solution.

Crisis In Baltimore Schools

February 25, 2004|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

Banging on empty water-cooler bottles for a rhythmic drumbeat, about 150 city students from five schools who had skipped their classes demonstrated yesterday outside a meeting of the state Board of Education, demanding funding for Baltimore's struggling schools.

"We want our money, and we want our education," said Chantel Morant, 15, a sophomore at Baltimore City College who helped organize the rally. "Money and education go hand in hand, like two plus two equals four."

The students skipped school and caught MTA buses or walked to meet at 9 a.m. in front of state Department of Education headquarters on West Baltimore Street. The rally was organized by the Baltimore City Council of PTAs.

The outburst was the order of the day in a city where educators, parents and students are fuming over the school district's financial mess and a breakdown yesterday in reaching a solution for the fiscal crisis.

The city schools' financial troubles, including at least a $58 million cumulative deficit and a separate cash flow shortfall, have delayed paychecks to some vendors. Two weeks ago, the union that represents teachers and other school workers rejected a proposed pay cut to help ease the budget crisis.

"I don't know if there was mismanagement of the money or if someone stole it, I don't really care. I just want my children to get educated," said Ronald Miller, picking up his two children yesterday at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in West Baltimore.

"And I know this is not a good environment for children to learn," he said. "Because I am stressed out about this, the teachers are stressed out, and so you know the children have to be stressed about it."

William Paca Elementary School in East Baltimore was a failing school several years ago until being designated a "CEO district" school, which brought in extra money for a new principal, consultants to work with teachers and extended school days. Scores have improved, but parents say pending fiscal cuts could hurt academic gains.

"What are they going to do about the children when they cut all this out?" asked Anntuanna Paschall, mother of England, a pupil there. "How are they going to learn?"

Paca's principal, Mary M. Minter, fears the school will lose its extended-day program.

Paca mother Ethel Smithson worries that an eventual solution will involve cutting teachers' jobs. She envisions classrooms "with teachers trying their best to teach 35 to 40 students. They're not going to be able to learn everything. They're not going to listen to that poor teacher."

Three students studying nursing at Dunbar High - senior Adrian Quick, 17, and 16-year-old juniors Monica Buie and Shameeka Jackson - said they fear they'll be hurt badly by the school fiscal crisis.

"We might not be certified because they don't have any money," Buie said. "If they don't have enough money for us to go on-site, to a nursing home."

"It's creepy," said Quick. "It is just not right the way they're treating the teachers. If I was a teacher, I would be protesting or doing something."

She said she doesn't see why teachers should face pay cuts when "they didn't have anything to do with the budget crisis."

Brittany Leigh and Tierra Wilson, both 15 and freshmen at City College High School, took the subway and rode a bus to participate in a 2 p.m. rally yesterday at the school system headquarters on North Avenue.

They were the only two people there, much too early for a city school board that would convene later, but still they stood in the rain holding signs. Brittany's read: "Free Us From A Corrupt System." Tierra's had seven slogans, including, "Help Baltimore City students" and "We Need Help."

At a city school board meeting yesterday evening, Karan Engerman, a teacher at Yorkwood Elementary in Northeast Baltimore and union secretary, berated board members.

"This board continues to meet behind closed doors without any representation from educators," she said. "Are we going to be treated as key components of the school system or are we still going to be treated as second-class citizens?"

Though he rejected yesterday a city school system accountability plan that would have triggered a state financial rescue, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said he would include Baltimore parents - who have complained that their concerns have gone unheard - in discussions about a solution to the fiscal crisis.

"I am encouraged by that, I look forward to being part of that process," said PTA President Michael Hamilton.

Parents scoffed at indications from the governor's office of a possible takeover of city schools and insisted that local control is still feasible.

"What we are seeing is that there is no one in particular to blame, so I think the answer is here," said Kevin Slayton, chairman of the Baltimore Parent Community Advisory Board. He said he was not discouraged by the governor's rejection of the city plan.

"As long as people are talking there is progress being made," he said. "I think some solution needs to be reached in the next 48 hours, and I think that can be done."

Sun staff writers Mike Bowler, Laura Loh, Carl Schoettler, Stephanie Shapiro and Laurie Willis contributed to this article.

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