With Snow and Cold Weather Still in the Forecast, Teachers Union asks for Schools to Close; Santelises Declines

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City Schools headquarters. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Citing low temperatures in classrooms that have caused students and teachers to wear their winter coats indoors, the Baltimore Teachers Union requested in a letter sent Wednesday to City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises that schools in the district be closed until heating systems can be assessed and repaired.

“As I shared in my email to you yesterday, I do realize that you and your staff are managing the best you can to rectify the issue in this record-breaking cold weather, however, doing so on the backs of our members and the children of Baltimore City is unacceptable,” union president Marietta English wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Sun.

“Additionally, your expectation that our members and the children that they teach endure bursting boilers, drafty windows, frigid temperatures in classrooms, and risk getting sick in these ‘less than ideal’ conditions, is utterly ridiculous.”

In a Facebook Live session with manager of public information Edie House Foster broadcast late this afternoon, Santelises said it is “overly simplistic to just say ‘shut down the system.'”

“I don’t knee-jerk close anything down just because I have one perspective,” she later said.

Earlier in the broadcast, the CEO likened the decision to close schools to a juggling act.

“We are balancing the need for young people to connect to meals, the need for kids to connect with caring adults in safe spaces, as well as the fact that we want young people learning and we don’t want lost learning time,” she said.

The letter from the union and response from North Avenue comes a day after several media reports, including stories in the Baltimore Brew and on ABC2, highlighted frigid classroom conditions and a picture of students huddled on a classroom floor in heavy coats.

Baltimore has had more than a week of sub-40-degree temperatures. On Twitter late Monday night, the school system posted that heating systems were monitored during the holiday break. With the exception of Woodhome Elementary/Middle School and the Elementary/Middle Alternative Programs, all schools were expected to open on time Tuesday morning.

By the time Tuesday morning rolled around, closures at Frederick Elementary School and Lakeland Elementary/Middle School were announced. On Tuesday night, officials decided to cancel classes at four schools this morning.

Now, the National Weather Service is predicting a storm that is already dumping snow as far south as Florida and the Carolinas will bring one to two inches in Baltimore tomorrow, with more accumulation further east in Maryland. And temperatures are not expected to get above 30 degrees until Monday, Jan. 8.

The situation has sparked outrage on social media from citizens, activists and local politicians alike, with many laying the blame on Gov. Larry Hogan and a lack of proper funding.

Hogan’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But in a Twitter exchange, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford defended the administration, saying they have fully funded city schools.

“In fact, we provided more than the formulas called for,” he wrote in response to an upset citizen. “The money is not reaching the classroom–ask North Ave. why?”

Rutherford also pointed to two ongoing audits of how Baltimore City Schools spends its money.

A commission, led by William E. “Brit” Kirwan, the chairman of the University System of Maryland, was established to review the funding by which the state funds schools. One consultant hired by the commission estimated that an increase of $2.9 billion would be needed to fund K-12 schools equally. But the commission pushed the release of a plan until after state elections in November 2018.

The local activist group Not Without Black Women is organizing to get concerned parents and citizens to attend the next meeting of the Board of School Commissioners, on Jan. 9 at 5 p.m.

“Black and Brown children attending school in cold, frigid weather with little to no heat is a civil and human rights violation!” the event description reads. “Join us at the next Baltimore City Public Schools Board Meeting to have our voices heard and find out what city officials plan to do about it. Parents, children and allies, let’s pack the room.”

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