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Clergy, children protest cuts to city after-school programs

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Religious leaders joined hundreds of children and parents in a march around Baltimore's Inner Harbor on Thursday afternoon to protest Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's proposed budget cuts to after-school programs.

"Our children are our jewels, not the Inner Harbor," Bishop Douglas Miles, co-chair of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, said in front of the Baltimore Convention Center as children and parents cheered.

Parents said they rely on after-school programs threatened by Rawlings-Blake's budget to provide opportunities for children to play and learn.

"The children feel like they're safe there. Why take that from them?" said Tanika Rucker-Blackmon of Brooklyn, who attended the rally with her husband and two of her children.

Miles, the pastor of Koinonia Baptist Church, said that Rawlings-Blake had reneged on her campaign promise to doube funding for after-school programs. At a forum for mayoral candidates during last summer's city primary, Rawlings-Blake emphatically answered "yes" when asked by BUILD leaders if she would double funding for after-school programs.

Instead, Rawlings-Blake, grappling with a $48 million shortfall, has shaved $200,000 from the budget for after-school programs, reducing it to $4.6 million. She plans to fund only after-school programs serving designated "community resource schools." There are currently 20 such schools, although that number could increase, officials said.

That means that as many as 30 after-school programs that are not associated with the community schools could be in jeopardy. Which programs will receive funding will not be announced until early June, said Kevin Keegan, executive director of the quasi-public Family League, which administers the funding.

Ian Brennan, a mayoral spokesman, said Thursday that Rawlings-Blake's affirmative answer at the campaign forum indicated that she supported increasing funding in the abstract, but the city's financial limitations prevent her from doing so.

"She did say yes, she's in favor of increased funding," he said. "It's not that hard to support it. It's a challenge when year after year you have budget deficits."

The city is facing a $48 million shortfall in its $3 billion budget, due in part to the rising cost of some fixed expenses, although overall spending increased by 0.01 percent. The mayor has filled the gap in large part by trimming health care costs, but she also made some cuts to services.

Some departments would see increased funding in Rawlings-Blake's budget, including the mayor's office, the City Council and the comptroller's office. Budgets for the Finance Department, transportation, public works, fire and police all increased by millions of dollars. Spending on police patrols alone will increase by nearly $43 million to $220 million.

Keegan said he expects that the overhaul of after-school programs will lead to more children receiving services. Currently, about 5,000 kids attend programs supported by the city, he said.

"The emphasis is on the number of kids being served, not the number of schools or programs," he said.

His organization expects to award contracts to run the after-school programs during the first week of June, when the city budget process is nearly complete. Until then, it will remain unclear which programs will receive funding and in which neighborhoods, he said.

Miles says that is unacceptable. His Northeast Baltimore church has offered an after-school program for 18 years that serves children year-round and is supported by $75,000 in city funding.

Cutting funds for such programs is "unconscionable," Miles said. "This will leave thousands of young people without after-school activities," he said.

Miles vowed to fight against any tax breaks for development projects, especially a proposed expansion of the arena and convention center, until the mayor fulfills her promise.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

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