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Educationby Fern Shen12:00 pmFeb 28, 20170

Principals and parents ask Pugh: Where’s the plan to help schools?

Mayor had promised to explain how she would boost Baltimore’s contribution to its cash-strapped schools

Above: Craig Rivers was one of 50 principals who rallied outside City Hall caliing on city leaders to help close the budget gap. (Fern Shen)

“Prove it! Prove it,” the crowd had chanted in Annapolis last week when Mayor Catherine Pugh told them that she is committed to helping Baltimore’s school system close its $130 million budget gap and would have an announcement on Monday about her plan.

If there was skepticism then, there was disappointment – and outright scorn from some – when Pugh returned to Annapolis yesterday to announce, basically, that she was still working on it.

“Is this becoming a thing now? ‘I have a plan, big plan, such a good plan’. . . then, no plan?’” a Facebook commenter said in an allusion to the verbal stylings of President Donald Trump.

“You can say anything at a speech or a rally, but in the end you have to put your money where your heart is,” said Craig Rivers, principal of Merganthaler Vocational Technical High School (Mervo).

Rivers was one of about 50 principals rallying outside City Hall yesterday afternoon to turn up the heat on Pugh, who last year made a campaign pledge to increase the city’s contribution to schools.

“At Mervo, if we had to make these cuts, I don’t know how we would come back from that, it would change us dramatically,” Rivers said.

Under the current budget, he said, he would have to close a $2.6 million gap by likely slashing 15 positions, increasing class size and cutting important programs, including one that provides mentoring for girls.

“This [budget] would be turning our backs on its neediest,” Rivers said. “This is a civil rights issue.”

Spelling out the group’s message after the rally was Rob English of the faith and community group BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development). With school officials saying that the drastic budget reduction would lead to cuts of 1,000 or more, he said the situation is urgent.

“There has been some talk of other numbers – like $65 million – but this needs to be $130 million and it needs to be a three-year commitment,” said English. “It needs to be with no strings attached, no gimmicks, no robbing Peter to pay Paul. And the city needs to do its part.”

“Profoundly Underwhelmed”

Addressing the media in Annapolis, Pugh said yesterday she was looking for Gov. Larry Hogan to make a three-year commitment to help the school system weather its budget woes.

That answer was frustrating and disappointing for one parent, who noted that Baltimore’s contribution to schools is among the lowest in the state. Melissa Schober, whose eight-year-old daughter attends city schools, said she had been encouraged by Pugh’s promise to increase the city’s share.

“Now she seems to be saying, ‘I’m waiting for the Governor to blink first,’” Schober said. “This is profoundly underwhelming.”

Schober said she understands Pugh’s negotiating challenge – “that the state budget comes before the city’s,” but from “what I’ve heard from advocates , Del. Maggie MacIntosh said it last year . . . is that the city needs to do more.”

“It puts [the city’s delegation in Annapolis] in an incredibly awkward position to ask for more from the state when the city is not doing its part,” Schober added.

Punishing Children

To those who point to Baltimore’s own budget deficit, Schober said, City Hall should address its lack of fiscal responsibility (“Extra work orders left and right”), and rethink its spending priorities – in particular the $450 million police budget, by far the city’s largest spending category.

Steadily rising public safety spending, she said, hasn’t made Baltimore safer.

“I agree that more fiscal accountability for the school system would be a good thing,” Schober said. “But I find it interesting . . . that the people who are so happy to call out North Avenue are really quiet about the police department.”

Schober called on school leaders to release the Baltimore City Public Schools audits that they say show “no material weakness” in the system’s finances and to consider conducting more thorough forensic audits.

“But meanwhile,” she said, “We do not punish 82,000 children for the mistakes of adults.”

Cuts in Music, Arts, Reading Programs

The principals spelled out what that “punishment” would look like in their schools.

Brandishing copies of their budgets, they said there would be cuts in not just the teaching force but support staff, after-school activities, reading, music and arts programs and more.

The estimated, for instance, that 15 teachers would have to be cut at the new Leith Walk Elementary School in Northeast Baltimore under a budget dropping from $8,799,662 to $7,065,520.

“At Matthew A. Henson Elementary School we’re looking at losing approximately a quarter of a million dollars,” said principal David Guzman, addressing a crowd of parents, teachers and city council  members.

“We currently have kindergarten and first grade classrooms with approximately 21-22 scholars in each class,” Guzman said. “We’re looking at that number going up to almost 35 students in each class.”

Like Shober, First District Councilman Zeke Cohen said spending that emphasizes incarceration and policing over education needs to change.”

“This deficit,” Cohen said, “is caused by our collective failure to prioritize our our youth in our budgeting.”

In a statement to the media, meanwhile, Gov. Hogan pledged to continue working with city officials to find a solution.

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