Debate over responsibility for cold Baltimore schools heats up

The debate over the city’s aging school infrastructure continued to heat up Thursday while light snow kept Baltimore students home.

Public officials sparred on Twitter and released statements decrying the building conditions that left students shivering earlier this week, when some classroom thermometers dropped to the 30s and 40s.

Politicians urged immediate repairs to burst pipes and broken boilers, and questioned how the millions of dollars poured into city schools by the state are spent.

Mayor Catherine Pugh called Thursday on city schools CEO Sonja Santelises and the school board to “to assess and account for how appropriated maintenance funds are being spent.”

“I am also urging an expedited process to deal with these issues, get these conditions fixed and get our students back to school,” Pugh said.

City schools’ CEO Sonja Santelises said in a statement that she shares the mayor’s sense of urgency and the district’s facilities staff have been “working tirelessly” to make repairs in schools across the city. Officials have received complaints about a lack of heating at about 60 of the system’s buildings this week.

“The challenges we are facing with these sustained frigid temperatures are not maintenance issues, but infrastructure,” Santelises said. Baltimore is home to some of the state’s oldest school infrastructure.

Schools will be closed Friday as the district works to address remaining problems.

“As this unprecedented stretch of extremely cold weather continues, new problems are arising as fast or faster as we resolve existing ones,” she said. “We anticipate more problems overnight and tomorrow, particularly with broken pipes in our buildings and potentially water mains in surrounding neighborhoods.”

Meanwhile, 22-year-old Samierra Jones said she felt compelled to act. The Coppin State senior launched GoFundMe page with the goal of raising $20,000 to bring heaters, coats, hats and gloves into the city’s schools.

As of Thursday at 5 p.m., the fundraiser had collected more than $28,000.

Jones said the community has rallied to come up with quick fixes that they can implement on the ground level.

“These kids are cold — they’re cold as of last month, as of last week, as of yesterday,” she said. “There is no reason why these babies should be sitting in classrooms with no heat.”

On Wednesday, the Baltimore Teachers Union called for the city to shut down all schools until officials could get a handle on heating problems. All city schools were closed Thursday because of a light snowfall. A city schools spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the GoFundMe campaign.

Earlier this week, a number of schools closed because of piping or heating problems. The city school system closed four schools all day Wednesday and dismissed students early from two others.

On Tuesday — the first day back from the winter holiday break — four schools were closed for either all or part of the day.

It was not clear Thursday evening whether students would be returning to school Friday.

Former NFL player Aaron Maybin, who works at Matthew A. Henson Elementary through a program called Leaders of Tomorrow Youth Center, has been heavily involved in the GoFundMe fundraising efforts.

He posted a video to his Twitter account, which has since gone viral. In the video, young students talk about how cold they are in their classrooms.

Maybin said his pre-kindergartners and kindergartners were talking about frostbite and hypothermia — “most of them don’t even know what that is,” he said.

“We’re not sending kids into an environment where anyone could be expected to get an education,” he said. “It’s my hope that this community action and the response to this issue puts pressure on policy makers to not just put a band-aid on a shotgun wound.”

Other NFL players have weighed in as well. Former Raven Torrey Smith, a Philadelphia Eagles player who still volunteers in Baltimore schools, tweeted: “The lack of heat in some Baltimore City schools is unreal … we were at our after-school program earlier this week and I heard the lady on the announcements say ‘Don’t let us not having heat stop you from coming to school tomorrow’ … that isn’t right.”

Other community-based solutions have taken off at the same time. There is a Google Doc circulating in which people can volunteer to donate Mylar emergency thermal blankets to classrooms in need.

Maybin said these community-based attempts aren’t a long-term solution for the crumbling school infrastructure that leaves kids sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter.

“It teaches our students that they don’t matter,” he said. “None of the kids that grow up in communities of privilege ever have to wonder about coming to school in this kind of environment.”

At next Tuesday’s school board meeting, organizers plan to rally for improvements to school infrastructure.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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