City students lie down in protest over state's lack of school funding

Downtown rally occurs after pleas at meeting

December 08, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Contending they have been victims of too few dollars for education, city students lay like corpses yesterday on the sidewalk across from the Baltimore Street offices of the State Department of Education.

They were mimicking a recent anti-smoking television ad, in which body bags are heaped onto a street to symbolize people who die from tobacco-related disease.

But the message yesterday was different: "No education, no life."

Before dropping to the ground, more than 50 students also marched in a circle and chanted slogans protesting what they consider the "starving" of their cash-strapped schools. Activists and other adult supporters stood nearby, wearing badges that read "Fasting for Funds" to announce the one-day hunger strike they planned to take part in today.

"The students on the ground symbolized the students who are dying due to a lack of education," said Brandon Roane, president of the Algebra Project, a tutoring group that turned activist during the school system's financial crisis last year.

The group organized the event to draw attention to a recent ruling in the long-standing Bradford v. Maryland case, in which Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan found that city schools have been shortchanged hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds.

Activists have been energized by the ruling. But state officials have appealed the order and refused to comply as they await a hearing before a higher court.

"All of that litigation is still in process," said William Reinhard, a state education department spokesman. "There are aspects of the judge's ruling that the state does not agree with, and that's why it's on appeal."

Advocates for students argue that the appeal should not free the state from having to obey the order to increase funding for the schools, which have seen teacher shortages, crowded classrooms and disruptive conditions this fall as a result of major budget cuts.

Kaplan's ruling said that the state has underfunded the school system between $439 million and $835 million over the past four years, an estimate based on an independent study of city schools' needs, a school funding formula passed by the legislature and other evidence.

To many students, it has been difficult to understand how such a ruling could fail to have an immediate effect. During a state school board meeting yesterday before the demonstration, students testified for the second time this fall and attempted to place board members and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick under arrest for resisting the court order.

At a meeting in late October, students angered board members by testifying in heated terms and going beyond their alloted speaking time. Several members, weary of listening to the verbal attacks, walked out of the meeting, students said.

Yesterday, the students renewed their complaints in a polite but insistent manner. Lorne Francis, a City College senior, asked board members to look at red X's made of masking tape with which he and his fellow students had marked their clothing.

"They are red from the passion of our plea and from the fires in our hallways," Francis said, referring to the student-set fires that have disrupted many schools this fall.

"Our request of you is simple," he said. "Submit a budget proposal to the legislature with the court-ordered $840 million allotment that is needed to level the playing field for Baltimore City students. ... Show us that, at the very least, you are on our side, even if the state is not."

The student turned to two state troopers stationed in the board room in anticipation of the demonstration and asked them to arrest the board members and Grasmick. The request elicited no response.

Board President Edward L. Root thanked Francis for being well-mannered. "This board heard what you said," Root said. "We're as concerned as you are, and we did hear it."

When Francis joined the other students across the street, however, he told them: "I think it seemed kind of sad and kind of telling that the board members didn't seem particularly moved. So we may be out here a few more times."

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