City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises speaks to a parent. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

More than 100 parents, teachers, students and concerned Baltimore residents packed into the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School cafeteria Monday night to say their piece and field questions directly to Baltimore City Public Schools brass about facilities failures, school funding and a range of other issues.

Even as the mood grew palpably tense, and as three-minute time limits for speakers quickly crumbled, parents and school system higher-ups took advantage of a rare platform to speak face-to-face and confront — or at least connect about — their issues.

“If that were me sitting there holding that same letter for one of my girls, I would be just as frustrated,” said City Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises, addressing a parent with concerns about her child’s test scores.

City Schools called the town hall-style meeting mainly to discuss heating failures and broken pipes caused by cold weather earlier this month, which left thousands of students out of school just as their semester began, and around 140 schools in total in need of mechanical or pipe repairs. The crisis became national news when images circulated of students trying to learn while huddled in winter coats, and as state and local officials wrestled over who was to blame.

Administrators explained Monday that they have now implemented minimum or maximum temperature policies for school classrooms, depending on the season, though parents still had concerns about whether that would be enough.

Parent Melissa Schober pointed out that she only learned her daughter’s school day had been cancelled eight minutes before the building was closed earlier this month. Nancy Davenport, a Penn North resident whose granddaughter attends City Schools, asked how she and others can be given sufficient notice to pick their students up if school is called off or they need to be moved.

Alison Perkins-Cohen, chief of staff for City Schools, said school custodial staff, who are among the first to arrive at schools in the morning, will be given “temperature wands” to report data to school administrators as soon as they arrive; if a room’s temperature is “problematic,” she said, principals will determine whether the schools can be heated to appropriate levels or if students should be moved to different classrooms.

Photo by Ethan McLeod

A few audience members asked about statistics from media reports, such as the not-so-simple number of $66 million that The Sun reported City Schools “returned” to the state (further explained by Baltimore Fishbowl here), or Fox45’s trumpeting of a figure that says the district spends $1,630 per student on administrative costs alone. Officials clarified the statistics’ meanings, and in some instances pushed back.

“Let’s not confuse stuff that people sent out as the narrative when they don’t do the deep research that half the high school students in here do,” Santelises snapped.

Some parents, such as Waverly Elementary/Middle School parent-teacher organization president Joseph Kane, called on their peers to better “organize” and attend PTO meetings. Cheryl Jones asked parents to replace their time spent watching cable TV shows with “Channel 77,” the school system’s public access channel that broadcasts school board meetings.

“This should be the norm all the time” at PTO meetings, she said of the high turnout in the Dunbar cafeteria.

Nicole Taylor said she and fellow parents should remind students they are supported, even if their facilities are in poor condition. “Let them know that they are special and that they have a future in this world,” she said. “When they look around, they’re a person in their environment. They see people coming in and out of jail, that becomes a normalcy to them.”

While the meeting retained a sense of respect between attendees and officials, tensions bubbled over at several points. One man stood up and called on the school board to be fired and replaced.

things getting heated; he said @BaltCitySchools board should “should all be fired.”

— Ethan McLeod (@ethanfmcleod) January 22, 2018

In another case, when moderator Farajii Muhammad asked a woman to step aside after her time to field questions had expired, she at first refused and insisted administrators “just answer the question,” drawing supportive shouts from the audience. (She moved aside shortly after.)

Looking ahead, some audience members asked administrators how they plan to try to remedy the school system’s funding woes at the state level. Administrators will be lobbying during the current legislative session in Annapolis to help change to the so-called recycling money and partial funding systems used by the state to fund school facilities projects, Perkins-Cohen said.

She added that changing the state’s current funding formula and addressing billions of dollars in deferred maintenance for the school system are key priorities. Councilman Zeke Cohen pointed out that the state has identified a $290 million annual shortfall in funding for City Schools since 2012, caused by not adjusting for inflation in its school funding formula.

“In 2018, in the wealthiest country in the wealthiest state on Earth, it is a darn shame that we are having conversations about our buildings being frozen and our children being frozen,” Cohen said. “We need to make absolutely sure that our elected officials, myself included on the city council, are held accountable for every penny to their children.”

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...