Community members sound off on troubled Baltimore school system at Monday night Town Hall

Schools CEO Sonja Santelises / Screencap courtesy The Real News Network

At a Dunbar High School town hall on Monday night, Baltimore City School Board members including school CEO Sonja Santelises responded to concerns about freezing classrooms and widespread mismanagement at schools. The town hall was announced on Jan. 10 at a School Board Meeting taken over by angry parents and organizers who packed the North Avenue Baltimore City Public Schools headquarters demanding accountability for the lack of heat in city schools at the beginning of the month.

This town hall, moderated by WEAA radio host Farajii Muhammad, continued the pattern of that Jan. 10 meeting: a defensive Santelises continually placing blame on Governor Hogan and the state but also on residents, who seemed willing to agree that the state is at fault here but refused to let city school officials entirely off the hook.

“For quite a long time, you have already failed. You failed. Everything that we’re sitting here listening to now is the same old re-gift-wrapped explanation to what is wrong,” community member Donald Rhuebottom said, voicing what many who showed up felt.

“We now have protocols in place that we didn’t have before so that when buildings are too hot, we met with the Baltimore Teachers Union, we worked with them. We worked with other teachers who had actually emailed directly. We had some parents who did that,” Santelises said. “And so, one of our big lessons was having kind of a consistent policy that said this is the target for every young person in Baltimore City.”

Rhuebottom also repeated a faulty piece of data that continues to spread—that Baltimore is the fourth highest funded school system in the country.

“We get more money per student than almost anybody in the country. But then we don’t even have a single school that’s proficient. Not one,” Rhuebottom said.

As Real News reported back in December, this fudged fact—that Baltimore has the fourth highest per-pupil funding in the nation—which Project Baltimore often cites in stories that go viral, is misrepresentative: The Census Bureau says Baltimore ranks 2,600 out of the nation’s 13,000 school districts. Baltimore is fourth only among the country’s 100 largest school districts.

“That’s not accurate information,” Santelises told Rhuebottom. “When you look more deeply, what you see is that there are outside organizations that have said for a long time that Baltimore City is not funded at the level that it should be.”

Most of the crowd didn’t quarrel with Santelises and the school board’s blame on funding issues—it’s just that they wouldn’t let that be the end of the conversation.

“We better recognize who is really to blame for this funding crisis. We better recognize when Governor Hogan says he has given our schools $2.5 million but with so-called accountability standards. When he tries to paint us with a false narrative, that we are incompetent. We are unable to manage our own affairs. There is widespread corruption. This too is coded language and it too is racist,” another resident said, confronting city officials and then invoking Project Baltimore, whose slogan is “Save Our Schools.”

“Our elected officials, along with the media under the pretext of Save Our Schools, among others are complicit in the undermining of our schools,” the resident continued. “Particularly the mayor and the City Council that are more interested in failed policies like mandatory minimum sentences, giving themselves a raise, and disproportionately funding the police department instead of demanding that the state comply with its agreement to fully fund our schools.”

Also referenced was a widely circulated Baltimore Sun article that found Baltimore City has returned $66 million slated for school construction including heating repairs because it was unable to complete projects on time or at cost. The article was picked up by Republican Governor Larry Hogan, who cited it as evidence of mismanagement by the city.

“We are sending money back to the state. So, my question is, what is our plan that we can stop sending money back to the state?” another speaker asked. “Now look at the budget. I feel like there is nothing that that budget is saying that they have money for that we don’t have a building that has a need to meet that money.”

“What we are advocating for is for that process to be changed,” Santelises said. “Because as has been noted . . . it amounts to a poor tax.”

The speaker agreed with Santelises but also indicated the answer wasn’t enough.

Santelises continued.

“So, if you do not have the money to forward fund your project, you get dinged and your money gets sent back. So, if you’ve got a rich uncle who can give you the money to pay for the roof upfront. Well then you’re straight. If you don’t have a rich uncle, then you’re set trying to guess and project. So, I think it’s important for everybody here. Look, there are lots of legitimate anger and everything else, but let me tell you something. Please understand that $66 million is $66 million that we found that was not given to us.”

Then Santelises moved back to a point mentioned on Jan. 10: The city schools are essentially set up to fail and portrayed as inept.

“All this stuff about administrative mismanagement and ineffectiveness and the narrative, right? The narrative that gets put here,” she said. “It’s interesting how it becomes ineptitude when it was actually us who found and did the analysis.”

Perhaps more telling than any of the back-and-forths last night, however, was a handout given to attendees listing and detailing every Baltimore City Public School that had heating issues.

It was 10 pages long.

Visit therealnews.com for companion videos to this story and more independent local, national, and international journalism that examines the underlying causes of chronic problems and searches for effective solutions.

Sign up for the Beat Blast!

Get news to your inbox every week!