School board meeting disrupted

Student protesters seeking panel's support in their quest for $1 billion for city system

January 10, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,sun reporter

A Baltimore school board meeting was disrupted last night by student protesters who interrupted the agenda to demand support as they seek $1 billion for city schools.

Meanwhile, about 250 parents, children and staff members from three Baltimore schools run by Edison Schools Inc. turned out to urge officials to renew the company's expiring contract.

The protesters were from the Baltimore Algebra Project, a student tutoring and advocacy group. They were unable to secure one of the 10 spots for public comment at the meeting because of the crowd from Edison. The students interrupted speakers and led the audience in chants including, "No education, no life." They also yelled, "Is it OK to lie to children?"

The students want the board to sign a motion pressuring Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley to give $1 billion to city schools. A Baltimore Circuit Court judge ruled in 2004 that the state had unlawfully underfunded city schools by $400 million to $800 million since 2000. The students say that translates to about $1 billion today.

School police officers, including Chief Antonio Williams, surrounded but did not forcibly remove the half-dozen protesting students, who had about 20 supporters with them in the audience. An Algebra Project student was forcibly removed from a December board meeting, and students last night were also demanding that the board apologize to him.

The great-grandmother of an Edison student publicly chided the protesters for being disrespectful.

O'Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said the mayor is committed to adequately funding city schools and will work toward that goal in Annapolis.

But, she said, "He did not commit to that figure" of $1 billion.

Also last night, board member Kalman R. "Buzzy" Hettleman apologized to the community for the system's mishandling of transferring teachers' assistants. Without consulting the school board, system officials were planning to transfer 150 assistants to different schools this week to meet a provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. But it backed down amid significant pressure and the threat of a lawsuit.

"We need to identify why the system could make such a complete mess," Hettleman said. "This was indefensible and inexcusable."

Much of the meeting centered on Edison, which has run Montebello, Furman L. Templeton and Gilmor elementary schools under a contract with the Maryland State Department of Education since 2000.

At the time, the state had the power to step in to order outside management of the schools, which were among the city's worst. It contracted with the for-profit Edison, which runs about 150 schools across the nation.

Edison's contract is set to expire in June. Because of changes in state and federal law, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick says she is returning control of the three schools to the city. Though Grasmick has high praise for Edison's work, it will be up to the city school board to decide whether to renew the company's contract.

Edison officials say they are trying to arrange meetings with city school system officials.

Board Chairman Brian D. Morris said the board only recently learned that it would regain control of the Edison schools. He said administrators are studying the educational and fiscal implications of contract renewal.

City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Jr., who chairs the council's education committee, appeared before the board to urge a quick decision. If the school board does not renew the Edison contract, he said, it will need time to plan a management transition.

"We've been trying to get an answer on this for several months," Harris said in an interview. "We're past the election season. We should be moving forward."

He said parents at the Edison schools are "anxious, nervous" and "in a holding pattern."

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