February 10, 2017
Dear Education & Youth Committee:
Last night I attended your committee meeting at Patterson High school and since no public comments were taken I am sending you my response to what I heard in a letter. As a 12-year veteran Baltimore City school teacher and Baltimore City resident I have strong feelings about was discussed. I have to start by addressing what BCPSS Chief of Staff Alison Perkins-Cohen said because she was the voice of our school system.
Mrs. Perkins-Cohen’s comments revolved around explaining how our school system’s costs have gone up and that we have to find “new structural reductions in costs”. I agree that costs have gone up; healthcare costs, for example, have gone up nation-wide by no fault of teachers. But it’s NOT the case that we need new structural reductions in costs; it’s structural increases in revenue that are needed. The operating costs of our school system are not too high; the investment that’s being made in education is too low. Full stop.
The Chief of Staff went on to say that our city is very different than it was in the 1950s when many of our school buildings were built. She brought up that era to direct attention to the fact that our buildings are aging and we are unable to maintain them and to say that those buildings lie half-filled now. But too many people in positions of power are dancing around the actual issue. Framing this issue as one in which we have schools that are “too small” population-wise ignores the bigger issue that these empty schools are the skeletal remains of the school system that the white kids of the mid-20th century got to enjoy in those buildings’ prime. The Education & Youth Committee stated that one of the goals for the evening was to try to understand the cause of the deficit in our budget. The cause, councilwomen and councilmen, is that in the 1950s the white schools were funded by the wealth of the white population and, once school and housing desegregation became law, the wealthy white population largely left the City and we were left with the discarded, used buildings that we could not keep up without serious investment by the State. But the State has taken a ‘pull yourselves up by the bootstraps’ attitude and blame us for the deficit. That is racist and ahistorical posturing and the school system and the city council should be fighting to educate the public and illustrate how wrong this framing of the issue is.
Our school system’s budget is underfunded on purpose. The State refuses to acknowledge the studies that the ACLU has provided which demonstrate beyond doubt that it would take billions of dollars in investments by the state to education to create an equitable educational environment. Baltimore City is shamed as if we’re doing something wrong to cause our decreasing enrollment in BCPSS. But the school buildings are falling apart because, even with the 21st Century Schools plan, we’re expected to pay to renovate and rebuild schools using our system’s operating budget. We can’t afford to do that but we comply with the law so we lose staff. Sending kids to schools that are falling apart and understaffed is unappealing, and the governor offers vouchers to leave public schools, so parents take their kids elsewhere. So, then we’re told we have to close schools because they’re underutilized. We know it makes no sense to say ‘we’re failing this community (as evidenced by low school enrollment and poor performance/graduation rates) so let’s take the schools out of there entirely’ and yet that’s exactly what we are doing. The school system must cease using this rhetoric which plays into the hands of those that would dismantle public education. Call it like it is; we’re underfunded and the decision not to fund our schools is racist, classist, short-sighted, and hurts us all.
And as nice as it sounds for Mrs. Perkins-Cohen to say “we have a marketing problem” that contributes to our decreased enrollment I think that’s absurd. Our school buildings often have no heat. They are infested with cockroaches and mice. And, perhaps most importantly, we are unable to address the trauma that kids face in their communities because we can’t afford the social workers and psychologists to help them navigate it. We can’t afford to give them the enriching programs that make them want to engage with school because we don’t have the funding. And now we are being told that the solution is to cut an additional 1000 teacher jobs. Sure, we have skillful, hard-working teachers but that’s exactly what you plan to cut. I ask myself whether we learned anything at all from the uprising following the death of Freddie Gray. Our youth are screaming that they want futures that reflect their potential and we’re meeting them with the response that we can’t afford that.
Someone suggested that we invest in “partnerships” to make sure students still get access to arts experiences after the layoffs. When I hear “partnerships” to me that translates to uncertified people doing the job of a teacher without the same qualifications and receiving unfairly low pay and no benefits. Just a few minutes earlier we were supposed to use our arts and technology programs to attract families but now we have to scrounge to get community partners to try to replace the teachers we’re going to give pink slips to. We’re killing the arts and taking away the reasons kids love school.
Several councilmen have encouraged the teachers and our communities to ramp up our protests to achieve real change. I agree that we all need to funnel our righteous outrage into making our voices loud and clear. But like frogs in the pot who never jump to save themselves from the boiling water, our community members have been deceived by the anesthetizing of the messages surrounding the layoffs. I heard several people say “the layoffs that are being considered” and the “potential layoffs”. These layoffs are happening and they will be catastrophic. Not only that, but the way layoffs are being handled by the district is increasing the chaos. Mrs. Perkins-Cohen said that the teacher contract says layoffs can be decided based on “performance”, certification, and seniority. The contract actually says certification, qualifications, and seniority, but this leaves all of us to wonder whether this loose interpretation will lead to unfair firing practices that disregard the rights of veteran educators who have the experience our students need. Principals have to submit their staff cuts and budget decisions by February 27th. We don’t have until the end of a legislative session or future years when changes could be made to school funding formulas. We have fewer than two weeks. Teachers are already looking for other work because they have families to support and can’t weather this constant uncertainty. This needs to be fixed now.
So what should our next steps be? The first is to get our own houses in order. On Tuesday of next week at the Baltimore City School Board meeting my colleagues and I will demand to know what options are on the table to avoid layoffs. The fact that we have heard nothing about furloughs or potential ways of alleviating the budget crisis in terms of the teacher contract negotiations is inexplicable. Teachers want to be part of the solution and it’s this secrecy that leads parents and the community to think that teachers are somehow being selfish or bringing this on the school system. If we are to all work together the Board, the CEO, and the BTU need to have open negotiations. Only through transparent leadership can trust be built and the best decisions be reached.
Teachers will also demand that the Board stop acquiescing to the underfunding of schools and call on the mayor to increase the City’s contributions to education. Legislators in Annapolis point to increasing tax revenues in our city and ask us why the State should contribute more when our own city leaders won’t make education a priority. Only when the mayor follows through on her campaign promises to increase education funding will the State take our commitments seriously. The City Council can stand with the rest of us and call on the mayor to immediately take action. You can also do your part by re-negotiating all city contracts that give companies tax waivers. The school funding formula is what it is right now so you cannot just shift responsibility onto others. You must not say “we’ll lobby for the formula to be changed” while simultaneously continuing to grow our ‘on paper’ property tax values and waiving companies’ responsibilities to pay taxes.
You will also see us rally in Annapolis on February 23rd with the Baltimore Education Coalition. Get on a bus and go with us to tell the governor and the general assembly that education must be funded equitably and in accordance with the many official assessments and reports that they’ve been given. We need tax loopholes to be closed and casino money to be given to schools in addition to previous revenue streams; not in place of them. The governor must prioritize schools over tax breaks for the wealthy. And we all need to stand up and talk to our friends, family members, and fellow Marylanders and agree that Maryland is not truly prosperous unless we are all prospering. Cities are large economic drivers for states and a city with an education system that does not support kids’ futures will hold all of us back. For some of us the moral imperative to demand equity is enough. For the rest, we must illustrate how we all benefit from funding all Maryland schools appropriately.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I look forward to standing together to fight this funding problem head on.