No matter what Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises and Baltimore School Board Chair Cheryl Casciani declared about Jan. 10’s school board meeting, it would not be business as usual.
Schools were still working out a heating crisis that closed schools, became a national news scandal, and left students in below freezing classrooms. As a result, frustrated parents, organizers, and students packed the North Avenue school headquarters building to get answers, in part with the organizational help of Not Without Black Women, who recast the meeting as a “Too Cold To Learn” protest.
For the first hour, the meeting was, well, a school board meeting: acknowledgments of service and other minutiae, occasionally interrupted by a very necessary peanut gallery of activists in the back who howled, joked, and jeered. Audible groans when Casciani read aloud parts of her recent Baltimore Sun op-ed about money for heating and where it went to the crowd.
There would be the town hall the hundreds there were looking for, Santelises told the crowd—and the overflow rooms watching the meeting on a live feed—in a week or so, on Jan. 22 at 6 p.m. at Dunbar High School.
“There is space here for people to speak,” Santelises said stressing that only the 10 citizens who signed up for public comment would get to address the board tonight. “And we are creating space on Jan. 22 for people to speak.”
“This is a tragedy, what if we can’t make it on the 22nd?” a parent in the back of the room screamed. “We’ve got jobs, I can’t even really go to work like I want to because I’ve got to take care of my children first.”
Parent Kesha Diggs, whose children attend Rosemont Elementary/Middle School, then interrupted the board to mention the school’s asbestos problem as an example of how the school board’s words and actions don’t line up.
“When you tell me you care and there’s an asbestos issue there and we’ve been discussing it since Dec. 7,” Diggs said, “I don’t believe it.”
“Can we move the public piece up?” organizer Tre Murphy asked from the back of the room.
Teacher Keysha Goodwin, simply raised a handmade sign which read, “Controlled information is not transparency.”
Finally, Casciani agreed to move the public comment part up. What followed was a number of speakers outlining a myriad of schools problems, often the heating issues, putting it all into stark relief. Education advocate Kim Trueheart focused on Gov. Larry Hogan, who she called “the problem in Annapolis” and mentioned the $65 million BCPS returned to the state that was for building maintenance and repair. Education reform activist Khalilah Harris quoted Jay-Z (or as she said, “the poet Shaun Carter”) when she told the board, “I don’t believe you, you need more people” and referred to the Horseshoe Casino money supposedly allotted for school funding as “a shell game.” Kimberly Smith, a grandmother, said the school needs to not only have a “heat policy” but a “cold policy” too, because even if the heat is working, that doesn’t necessarily mean the rooms aren’t freezing. Parent Tamika Snead declared, “Baltimore City kids matter” and told the board that the “heating crisis tells our children they are not a priority.”
The prevailing argument was one first floated by many outside the building before the meeting: The lack of heat in schools is not a new problem; it’s part of the systemic issues city schools have faced for decades.
“My immediate concern is actually about the narrative that’s not about the conditions that my students are facing because they’ve been facing these conditions for years and I trust my school administration to make every effort to make sure that my students have heat,” educator Cristina Duncan Evans said before the meeting. “What I am concerned about is a national narrative that basically blames Baltimore City for its poverty and doesn’t acknowledge that this is something that has been done to Baltimore City by decades of neglect.”
“A lot of this has to do with the systemic oppression of black folk in general; people have to not be naive enough to believe that this facilities issue is a thing that came about just now,” said Jamal Jones of the Baltimore Algebra Project in front of BCPS headquarters. “There was an entire $2.1 billion campaign called the Transform Baltimore Campaign headed up by Baltimore Education Coalition that was won [in legislation] in 2014 because of the issue of knowing our schools’ buildings have been dilapidated and eroding since the 1970s.”
Inside, parents and organizers continued to take over the meeting. As one of the speakers who signed up made their way down from the third floor overflow, Lakesha Diggs requested she be able to come up and formally discuss Rosemont’s asbestos issues on the record. Casciani conceded.
Diggs said her children have not been in school since Dec. 2 because she won’t put them in a school that would expose them to a known carcinogen, asbestos. There was a mid-December meeting about the issue at Rosemont, and still nothing has been done. She told the board they have “no empathy for what our kids are going through.”
Not long after, Tre Murphy silently walked up to the table to address the board and plopped down. He had not signed up, but he was going to speak. He quickly summed up the room’s attitude: “It makes no sense that we have to pack this building just to get an agenda amended. Because you knew that people were coming here. Let’s not play like we didn’t know that people was coming here and you can change that agenda around, we knew it was coming.”
Murphy maintained his composure as Casciani raised her voice and threatened to call a recess or end the meeting.
“It is not in your best interest to recess or adjourn this meeting,” Murphy said gently.
They went back and forth, but Murphy’s patient tone worked.
“Can everybody just please take it down a notch,” Casciani pleaded.
Then, organizer Ralikh Hayes stood up: “That is not gonna happen. I was a student of Baltimore City and I am a taxpayer. You will listen to us. You will listen how we tell you to listen because you’re a public servant.”
And then a City College student—the only student who spoke last night—stood up and praised the school board for their patience. He told the group that they were playing into racial stereotypes by raising their voices.
The crowd wasn’t having it.
“Where’s his mother?” one woman in the back yelled. Everyone laughed.
The room was ruthless. Police surrounded the woman who yelled at the student and she left, followed off of school property by a half-dozen cops.
The City student’s respectability politics angle lingered for the remainder of the meeting. Santelises offered a hedged mea culpa and a critique of many of the night’s speakers.
“We are cleaning up, but our mess up is not the only mess up,” she said. “We have seen decades of mess up and a lot of it is connected to funding.”
She shifted to issues of “the narrative” and noted that television cameras and reporters had mostly left—they got the good stuff where everybody yelled at everybody.
“So now that all the press is gone, right? So, what did they want to see? They wanted to see the acting out to then justify why they tell us we are incapable [of additional funding],” Santelises said.
Then she addressed some of the critiques from the speakers, in particular teacher Cristina Duncan Evans, who invoked “performative wokeness” to describe the school’s approach to racial politics when she addressed the board.
“So anybody who wants to know whether we are working for black and brown children, you come with me to Annapolis like we did last year and stand in the cold and get beat up in hallways in Annapolis, get told we’re not worthy of the money, and yet we go back,” Santelises said. “So I want a partnership, I’m fine with the hard push, but let’s do the push in the right direction. Let’s not feed the narrative. You want to go off on me, then you schedule a meeting and go off on me. I’ve been taking expletives and emails all week and I’d do it again because I am here for the kids of this city. If I wanted cushy, baby, I had it cushy in the last job I was in. I came back here because the answers are here. They are in the people of Baltimore City.”
She caught a little of the crowd’s spirit, it seemed. Her rousing speech sounded a lot like the ones she critiqued—passionate, sincere, and appropriately pissed off. There is one major difference, as many parents there were quick to point out: She has the power to fix it.
Additional reporting by Jaisal Noor.