Baltimore school taps famous alumni to lobby for funding

A Baltimore school is seeking help from famous alumni, like "The Good Wife" actor Josh Charles.

Facing what it says are potentially devastating budget cuts in the coming year, the Baltimore School for the Arts is calling on famous alumni to advocate on its behalf.

On Monday night, Josh Charles, an actor who attended the school, became the first to take up the cause. He wrote a series of tweets to his 126,000 followers spotlighting the funding problems faced by the school and public schools across Baltimore.

"My alma mater @BaltSchoolArts is facing a tremendous funding gap next year, as are all @BaltCitySchools #fixthegap @LarryHogan @MayorPugh50," he wrote in one message.

And in another: "I'm a proud product of @BaltSchoolArts & @BaltCitySchools and my best friend is a public HS teacher."

Charles said he was shocked that the issue of funding for the school system was even up for debate.

"Watching people play politics with the education and lives of children is infuriating, and reduced funding would be devastating for the city," he told the Baltimore Sun via Twitter.

During his time at the Baltimore School for the Arts, Charles said he saw how it was able to transform his fellow students.

"I witnessed firsthand the impact the school can have on the lives of young kids from the city," he said. "BSA nurtures talented kids who otherwise wouldn't have exposure to specialized arts training."

The social media hashtag #fixthegap has been used by parents and advocates as they call on Gov. Larry Hogan and Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh to strike a deal to close the school system's $130 million budget gap. The system has said that without additional funding, it might have to lay off 1,000 staff.

A spokesman for Pugh declined to comment on Charles' tweets. A spokeswoman for Hogan said Friday that negotiations between the city and the state were continuing.

The Baltimore School for the Arts, which also counts actress Jada Pinkett Smith and rapper Tupac as alumni, provides arts education alongside a traditional academic curriculum. About 400 ninth-to-12th-grade students are enrolled. While it is a Baltimore public school, its focus on training actors, musicians and other artists means it has many alumni with large followings.

The school sent out a letter to parents, students, alumni and other supporters Tuesday urging them to speak up publicly and to contact legislators about the budget shortfall.

Chris Ford, the West Madison Street school's director, said the school has coordinated with alumni. Its staff provided Charles with some facts about the budget situation to use in his posts. Ford said he expects fashion designer and Project Runway winner Christian Siriano to also offer support on Twitter soon.

"We really appreciate our alums and they're an incredibly involved group with us," Ford said. "Getting votes of confidence from folks like this is incredibly meaningful."

Using numbers supplied by school officials, Charles — who appeared in the legal drama "The Good Wife," a television series — wrote in one of his tweets that under the current budget projections the school doesn't have funding in the coming year for 75 of its 90 part-time arts teachers. Those part-time teachers make up the bulk of the school's arts faculty.

Ford added that under the current budget plans the school stands to lose $1.4 million in the coming year — about 30 percent of its public funding. The school's academic program also faces cuts, Ford said.

Staring down those numbers, Ford said it's hard to picture what the 36-year-old school would be like come September.

"We wouldn't look like we look right now," he said. "It would be very different. It's hard for me to imagine how we could fulfill our mission of providing pre-professional arts training."

On Friday, Pugh and Del. Maggie McIntosh, the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, announced a proposal for a three-year, $180 million package to aid the schools until new state funding rules are adopted.

About half the proposed $180 million would come from city sources, including the rainy day fund and leftover snow removal money, Pugh said. The state would make up the rest of the proposed money, largely through a bill that would change how the school system counts enrolled students. Legislation that would benefit Baltimore's schools to the tune of $24 million a year passed McIntosh's committee later that day, but key elements of the deal remain up in the air.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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