For parent Kristin Brown, the $130 million funding gap for next year’s Baltimore City Public Schools’ budget looms heavily over her daughter’s place of learning, Mt. Royal Elementary/Middle School in Bolton Hill. That school alone faces an $800,000 deficit for 2017-18, she said, which could mean letting teachers go.

But can Baltimore and Maryland elected officials find the money, as promised? “Those are the kind of decisions that are going to harm our children and their education,” Brown said. “This isn’t an extra; this isn’t a ‘nice-to-have,’ it’s a ‘must-have.’”

Hundreds of others who gathered at Rash Field below Federal Hill on Saturday morning shared Brown’s concerns. Parents, students, educators and a number of elected officials braved a spate of freezing weather, rare for this winter, to rally for leaders to find a way to “fix the gap.” The nonprofit Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance organized the event in partnership with the advocacy group Baltimore Education Coalition.

Crowd members bore signs and chanted to share their displeasure about the deficit, shouting in unison, “Fix the gap!” and “Strong schools, strong city,” and, most pointedly, “Where’s our mayor?”

In late January, Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises wrote a letter to parents, students and staff to inform them the school system could lay off up to 1,000 employees, teachers included, and cut additional services and school programs if it can’t come up with the money. The budget for next school year is set at $1.3 billion, meaning the system is missing 10 percent of its needed funding.

In the weeks since, teachers have held a sick-out and thousands have rallied in Annapolis to ask legislators, Mayor Catherine Pugh and Gov. Larry Hogan to find a way to fill the gap. Pugh has promised a solution, while Hogan has pushed back, saying last week on WBAL that the school system has poorly managed its finances and calling it a “complete disaster.”

Joining a sprawling crowd of sign-wielding families were Baltimore City Council members Zeke Cohen, Mary Pat Clarke, John Bullock, Eric Costello and Kristerfer Burnett, Baltimore City Dels. Brooke Lierman and Luke Clippinger and state Sen. Bill Ferguson, all Democrats representing District 46, as well as Santelises.

“You all are out here today advocating for our young people, young people advocating for themselves, that’s what makes the difference,” Santelises told the crowd from the wood steps of the pavilion next to Rash Field. “This is money that is an investment in the future leadership of our city, of our state, of our country, and frankly of the world.”

Many lashed out at Gov. Hogan for accusing the school system of not managing its finances. “The auditors have said that city’s books are in order. They’ve even commended City Schools for their stellar fiscal management,” said Sharicca Boldon, co-chair of the Baltimore Education Coalition and a community school coordinator at Margaret Brent Elementary in Charles Village.

Councilman Cohen echoed her point. Rather than blaming the city, he attributed the deficit in part to “a broken state budget formula that has failed to keep up with inflation and left our kids behind.”

Some protesters attacked the state for its years-old promise that casinos would bring a new revenue stream. “It seems like it’s a classic bait-and-switch,” said Karl Alexander, wielding a sign that read, “CASINO $$$s? HIGHWAY ROBBERY!”

Onstage, Cohen referenced the Baltimore Sun’s recent investigation that found casino funds “have not gone to bolster school budgets more than what the state already was required to spend — and some jurisdictions, including Baltimore, have suffered funding cuts.”

A few officials said they too will be affected by wide-reaching cuts for schools. “I have a son who will be in pre-K next year, and I’m dedicated to sending him to public schools in Baltimore City,” said Del. Lierman.

Tim Pula, senior development director at Harbor Point-based real estate firm Beatty Development, noted that he and his three siblings all graduated from City College High School and went on to earn graduate degrees. He now has two children enrolled in public schools in Baltimore.

“We’ve had 50 years of people leaving this city for a variety of reasons,” he said. “One of them has been the thought that they couldn’t get a good education here. We know that’s not true.”

One recurring theme stood out in most speakers’ addresses: Filling the budget gap is an investment in education, which will, in turn, benefit the city and state economy.

“Baltimore City is too important to fail. It’s the most important thing in the state of Maryland,” said Councilman Eric Costello. “We cannot let Baltimore City fail, and we cannot let our school system fail. Our future depends on it. These kids in front of us depend on it.”

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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...