Baltimore City school board Chair Cheryl Casciani promised a tense crowd at North Avenue on Tuesday night that the school board meeting would proceed as a “normal business meeting.” It was anything but that.
Hundreds of irate and concerned parents, teachers and students crowded into the city school system’s headquarters last night to share their indignation about broken heating systems and disrupted water service that shuttered schools and put Baltimore in the national spotlight this past week.
Some carried signs outside protesting the school system’s management of facilities. The crowd inside was sizable enough that many were moved to several overflow rooms on the third floor. One conference room was filled with at least 100 people.
During a public comment segment–which Casciani moved up in the schedule as the crowd grew more restless–parents and teachers bashed state and local officials and school administrators. The board permitted 11 people to make public comments at a table with a microphone and assured the rest of the crowd they’ll get to speak at a town hall-style meeting on Jan. 22 at Dunbar High School. (Some others grabbed the mic after the 11 permitted speakers were done.)
Community organizer Kim Trueheart said she blamed Gov. Larry Hogan and leaders in Annapolis for underfunded school and broken facilities, and called on them to make up for it with a check for as much as $65 million. “We are demanding forward funding of all of the capital projects that we have here in Baltimore City, no ifs, ands or buts.”
Khalilah Harris, a mother of three and a former Obama administration staffer, said the school board needed to prioritize direct collaboration with parents and teachers over official meetings. “We sit here in front of an unelected school board. There is no accountability,” she said.
Teacher Cristina Duncan Evans presented a petition from a Baltimore Teachers Union caucus with more than 1,500 signatures, demanding that principals be given autonomy to cancel classes if rooms aren’t 60 degrees or warmer. She accused City Schools of “performative wokeness” for touting this past weekend’s emergency heating system fixes, while ignoring the conditions students and teachers were facing, such as still-cold classrooms.
Casciani broke the ice early near the start of the meeting by bringing up the issue of heating. She cited a 2012 report that said the school system had amassed nearly $2.5 billion in needed facility improvements, making the case that the problem of aging school infrastructure has built up over many years.
“The time for finger pointing is over, I hope,” she said.
Minutes later, City Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises responded angrily to a parent interrupting proceedings to honor special guests. School administrators cut out the parent’s outburst on the live feed shown in the overflow rooms and online, but turned it back on as Santelises responded. “You will have your time to be outspoken, you will have your time to be angry,” she said.
— Ethan McLeod (@ethanfmcleod) January 9, 2018
Caisciani chimed in, telling parents they were “right to be as angry as you are,” and asking for them to help “restore order.”
Santelises subsequently admitted fault on behalf of the school system. “I’m fine with being held accountable,” she said, while also attributing the facilities failures to missing funding.
Tony Harrison, a 1986 graduate of Dunbar High School who works at Ruth M. Kirk Recreation and Learning Center as a coach, said in one of the overflow rooms that he didn’t recall any heating-related issues from when he was in middle or high school. He said he suspects revenue from the Maryland Lottery and casinos hasn’t made its way to schools as official have promised it would.
“They need to open up the books,” he said. “Why are these schools not fixed?”
Gov. Larry Hogan and Mayor Catherine Pugh are reportedly scheduled to meet today to discuss heating in schools. Hogan on Monday announced $2.5 million in discretionary funding to be used for heating-related fixes. He also criticized the city for using 10 percent of its general fund spending on schools and said he’d introduce a bill that would create an education inspector general position to probe school systems for unethical and improper conduct.
Mayor Pugh sent engineers into schools over the weekend to address HVAC issues. Five of six schools that were closed Tuesday due to broken heating or frozen pipes reopened on Wednesday morning, according to City Schools. Calverton Elementary/Middle School in West Baltimore remains closed Wednesday.