Baltimore turns the other cheek for Oprah


Baltimore still loves Oprah, even after the popular talk-show host denounced the city school system as an "atrocity" at a fundraising event Monday and opined on local TV that making a charitable donation to public schools would be a waste of good money.

"Everybody likes Oprah," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley of Winfrey, who cut her broadcasting teeth at WJZ-TV in Baltimore from 1978 to 1983 and whose daytime talk show is syndicated to 215 domestic markets and 121 countries.

Winfrey came to town to attend a fundraising event to benefit the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. During her speech before an audience of 2,400 at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Winfrey said that the high school dropout rate for black males in the city was "76 percent," but state education officials said yesterday that the number is closer to 50 percent.

At last night's city school board meeting, a discussion of the budget was punctuated by talk about Winfrey. Anirban Basu suggested that the school system print a booklet with accurate information students' performance.

Of Winfrey's statement about the dropout rate, he said: "We need to be the Dr. Phil and counter that with the facts." Schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland said the system's graduation rate has improved from 42 percent to 59 percent over the past decade.

During her brief visit, Winfrey also told WBAL-TV reporter Deborah Weiner that she had thought about donating money to the city school system but changed her mind because she didn't think it would make a difference. Winfrey's show airs on WBAL, the local NBC affiliate.

"What I've learned from my philanthropic givings is that unless you can create sustainability, then it's a waste," said Winfrey, whose Angel Network has raised more than $35 million to support charities and offer grants around the world. "You might as well pee it out."

During the WBAL interview, Oprah also stated that she has spoken about Baltimore's struggling school system with leaders around the world.

"I was actually sitting in Nelson Mandela's house telling him about the black male situation here in Baltimore," Winfrey said. "He did not believe me! I know it's easy to ignore, because you think it's East Baltimore and it doesn't have anything to do with your life and you're moving through your life. I just feel a sense of connection to that from which I've come."

Although many city and school officials grumbled about the talk-show host's comments, coming as they did within days of an attempted state takeover of 11 poorly performing city schools, no one criticized her publicly.

"I think she's not aware of the progress that has been made here," said O'Malley. "I'm sure it was not malicious on her part."

The timing of Winfrey's comments raised questions among some school officials.

Winfrey aired the first episode in a two-part series on the troubled state of the nation's schools yesterday. Promotional materials for the series, called "Oprah's Special Report: American Schools in Crisis," include photos of Winfrey with Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, who are using their own billions to improve schools, according to the Oprah Web site.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with nine local charities, contributed $20 million to city schools in 2002.

A spokeswoman for Winfrey said the timing of her comments and the airing of the education special were "merely a coincidence," and that Winfrey got her information about the city's dropout rate from the movie Boys of Baraka, a well-received documentary about four boys from Baltimore who were chosen to go to a boarding school in Kenya.

The film notes that 76 percent of black males never graduate, according to a recent article that appeared in The Sun.

Edie House, a spokeswoman for the city school system, said she could not confirm where filmmakers might have gotten the number.

Sun reporters Sara Neufeld and John Fritze contributed to this article.

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