Parents, teachers blast Baltimore officials over school heating woes

Hundreds of students, parents and teachers poured into the Baltimore school system’s headquarters Tuesday night to question officials about plumbing and heating problems that left students shivering in class — or out of school altogether — since returning from winter break.

Families stood outside the North Avenue headquarters with signs that read “Don’t be cold-hearted” and “40 degrees is inhumane” as the city school board met inside. Parents urged accountability from school board members and accused them of ignoring problems facing city children.

Six city schools were closed Tuesday and at least one of them, Calverton Elementary/Middle, is expected to be closed again on Wednesday.

Parents who attended the board meeting talked about their kids having to wear thick parkas and face masks to stay warm in school.

“It’s disgusting that it’s 2018 and we’re debating whether students should have heat in schools,” said Jean Heller, the mother of a seventh-grade student. “We need leaders who lead.”

City schools CEO Sonja Santelises and board Chairwoman Cheryl Casciani were repeatedly interrupted by emotional parents when trying to address the packed conference room. Casciani said families were “right to be as angry as you are” about the failing heating systems and bursting pipes.

“But you’re wrong that we don’t care,” she said.

Teachers voiced their concerns, too. Cristina Duncan Evans, a teacher at James McHenry Elementary/Middle School, presented the board with a petition organized by a group called the Baltimore Movement of Rank-and-File Educators. It had been signed by more than 1,500 people.

The petition demands that students attend classes in rooms that are warmer than 60 degrees and that principals be empowered to check temperatures and close their schools if necessary.

“Schools have experienced wait times with facilities issues because North Avenue was understaffed and couldn’t readily get the school what it needed,” Duncan Evans said. “People in the school building can make a decision about closing quicker than the central office can.”

Santelises later promised that the crowd had been heard.

"I'm fine being held accountable," she said in an impassioned speech. "We messed up. We are cleaning up, but our mess up is not the only mess up. We have seen decades of mess up and a lot of it is connected to funding."

Far more people showed up to the meeting than had tme to speak. Families poured out into the building’s lobby, filled overflow rooms and congregated outside. They will have another opportunity to vent their frustrations. The school system is planning to hold a town hall meeting to discuss facilities issues on Jan. 22 at 6 p.m. at Dunbar High School.

Baltimore school officials said Tuesday that the situation is improving after crews spent another day battling heating and plumbing problems in school buildings.

In addition to the six schools that were closed Tuesday, the rest of the schools in the city opened two hours late due to icy conditions on roads and sidewalks.

Updated school closings & delays »

Schools spokeswoman Anne Fullerton said that Calverton Elementary/Middle will remain closed Wednesday but that the goal is to have all of the other schools open. Calverton is a large, old building that is difficult to heat and is slated for replacement, she said.

“We know people want their children to be in school,” she said. “We’re working as hard as we can to make that happen.”

Fullerton said that city facilities workers and private contractors have been busy fixing malfunctioning heating and plumbing systems.

“Work has gone well today,” she said Tuesday afternoon. “We do feel like we’re moving in the right direction and we are in a much better place today than yesterday, and yesterday was better than the day before.”

Even as repairs were made at the schools that were closed, issues cropped up in other buildings.

Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, for example, was the source of complaints by parents and students who said it was too cold.

Fullerton said that the heat at Poly was working but that temperatures may be uneven because the school is large and drafty. The school system kept maintenance workers at Poly overnight to keep the boiler running.

Fullerton said the conditions at Poly aren’t ideal but the school “should be acceptable” for students to attend classes.

“These are big school buildings. In many cases, they are old. They have inadequate heating systems. They also have leaky windows and other various things going on with them,” she said.

Fullerton said school officials hope to have as many school buildings open as possible for the remainder of the week. But she cautioned that there are no guarantees with aging buildings, even as the temperature rises.

Local temperatures were below the freezing mark for eight straight days, a streak that ended Monday when the temperature hit 33 degrees at BWI Marshall Airport.

“The problem is the stress that’s been put on these systems over the prolonged period of cold weather is taking its toll,” she said. “We can’t say everything’s going to be miraculously fixed by Thursday when it’s 50 degrees.”

The heating woes have led to national media attention and withering criticisms by some politicians. Fullerton said her office has fielded interview requests from at least half a dozen out-of-town media outlets, while also trying to update frustrated parents.

Gov. Larry Hogan suggested the need for an “investigator general” this week to look into problems in local school systems, including Baltimore’s.

Fullerton said the school system hasn’t decided yet how to respond to Hogan’s proposal.

“We’re so focused on getting our buildings back in shape,” she said.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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