Baltimore schools call to “close the gap.”

By: Samantha Cooper

Baltimore public school principals and parents gathered outside of city hall on February 27, to protest a nearly $130 million budget cut to their funding. Such an action would negatively affect the public schools in the city, many of which are already struggling due to financial issues. Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development (BUILD) led the meeting and also seemingly coined the protest’s key phrase “Close the Gap.” According to The Baltimore Sun, the deficit makes up nearly 10% of the budget set aside for the city schools. The schools have also lost out on money since enrollment decreased due to 950 students attending private or charter schools; this has caused the system to lose out on about $25 million. This issue, however, was not mentioned during the day’s talks.

The first people to speak were BUILD members and parents of Baltimore City school students. Elizabeth Reichlet and Melvin Wilson. Each introduced and discussed the issues at hand. Reichlet called the budget cut, “A result of years of inadequate funding from the city and state…It is criminal.” Wilson bought up his son Bryce, when discussing the issues facing the students. He asked for the crowd to call on elected officials to make the change. “We cannot wait,” he said. This too became a phrase that was repeated throughout the afternoon.

Reverend Glenna Huber, a BUILD leader, spoke of the meetings purpose which was to “to demand adequate resources for out children.” She also compared the lack of resources designated for students. In the story, Pharaoh demanded that the Jewish slaves make more bricks then they had before, but refused to supply them with more straw. For Baltimore City Schools, Reverend Huber, said they “We cannot make bricks without straw. Enough is enough…We are not asking for a hand out… We want to be able to provide our children with a quality education.” Huber then explained that Baltimore had not paid the school district a sum of $290 million from lottery and ticket sales that they had been promised in an earlier agreement. If this money were to be given to the school district, they would be able to cover the budget cut and have $160 million left over to improve the schools, which would could help students and faculty in insurmountable ways.

The next to speak was Ashley Cook, the Principal at Mount Washington Elementary. Her school stands to lose one million dollars if the current budget is cut. Their current budget for next year is a mere $3.2 million, which is not enough to cover all of their expenses. She currently has 28 different scenarios in which to accommodate the budget cuts, some of which involve letting staff go; Mt. Washington, as of 2015, provides free breakfast and lunch to all students. Cook did not mention this in her speech, so it is unclear whether the program would be affected by the deficit. “We shouldn’t have to prioritize basic rights,” she said and added that the budget cuts “do not allow for a 21st century education.”

David Guzman, principal of Matthew A. Henson Elementary, where Freddie Gray attended as a child spoke about how his school became the epicenter for the protests following Gray’s death at the hands of Baltimore city police. While his school will not be receiving as much of a budget cut as the other schools, it will still be losing a quarter of a million dollars which will heavily affect their extra curricular activities and class sizes. The school has a debate team which was ranked 3rd in the city last year and has a reading program designed to help students who have fallen behind.

In an interview after the fact, Guzman also discussed these issues further, “My biggest concerns are budget cuts for the school and meeting the basic needs of the students…We take for granted class size.” If the budget cuts were to go through, Guzman would be forced to increase Kindergarten and 1st grade class sizes to 35 students up from 20. He also expanded on cutting back extra-curricular activities, as their chorus might have to be cut as well. Guzman also mentioned he is worried that they might face further budget cuts from Betsy DeVos, the new Secretary of Education.

Principal Craig Rivers of Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School also shared some of his worries and concerns with crowd. His concerns did not focus on his school specifically, but rather the larger effects the budget cuts would have on Baltimore. “

“This is a larger issue,” he said, “It is a social injustice. It is a civil rights issue.”

This caused the crowd to cheer in agreement. He then continued his speech, “We need to close the gap entirely…This is not a baseless warrant. We’ve been underfunded for years.” He then went on to explain that the $290 million that has not been given to the schools would not be a remedy. “Do not be fooled,” he said, “It will not solve the issue.” He also urged elected officials to use their conscious when making their decisions.

Principal Christopher Turk, urged for a call to action: “We are failing Baltimore city schools…We need to provide each child with the conditions to succeed…Without equal funding we cannot do the fundamental things for the children in this city. He concluded by thanking everyone who attended the meeting for “standing in the face of moral injustice.”

Other calls to action were given by another Reverend Michael Phillips and Maggie MacIntosh. Both echoed the pleas of earlier speakers. MacIntosh ended the meeting by saying, “Don’t balance our budget on the back of our children”

After the meeting ended, crowds dispersed though many of the speakers stayed behind to talk with the press. During this time it also became clear that, schools were not the only places that could be affected. A few people stood up protesting the destruction of the Chick Webb Recreation Center (CWRC), a community center for the Baltimore community. It is currently at risk of being torn down to make way for apartments. Ronald Miles, a Baltimore citizen, discussed the founding of the center. CWRC was founded by Dr. Ralph Young, an East Baltimore native who was the first African American appointed clinician in medicine at Johns Hopkins . Young served as the chairman of the Chick Webb Center, helping bring in much needed funds. The center was named after the jazz and swing musician Chick Webb, another Baltimore native.

More protests are to come; on March 2nd there will be a youth rally outside of City Hall to protest the budget cuts, and there will be a media rally on March 4th.

*(3/4/2017) This article originally identified Christopher Turk as an education advocate. He is a principal. The article has been changed to reflect this.

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