Group speaks out on schools

Sun Staff

The sanctuary of a Northeast Baltimore church shook with applause yesterday as members from dozens of religious congregations demanded that children not be affected by the fiscal crisis in the city public schools, and that control of the system return to the city and its residents by 2006.

"We demand that the children of Baltimore be held harmless," said the Rev. Stephen Tillette of Mount Zion United Methodist Church, one of several clergymen addressing the crowd of about 500 members of BUILD - Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development.

"Our children are not expendable," he declared. "Our children are the hope and the future of this great city and we better start to act like it."

Legislation to bail out the school system - including a $42 million state loan - is expected to be introduced today in Annapolis.

BUILD organizers said they invited the city's legislative delegation to attend the event at St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church on Loch Raven Boulevard, but only two attended - state Sen. Verna L. Jones and Del. Salima S. Marriott.

Marriott, who helped draft legislation to salvage the system, reassured the coalition that teaching positions would not be cut this school year. She also promised to introduce a bill next year that would return power over the school system to the mayor and city residents.

"I will do that," Marriott said to questions from the crowd.

Under the current system, the governor and mayor jointly select city school board members from a pool of candidates reviewed by the state superintendent of schools.

The bill to be introduced today calls for a five-member panel, with Mayor Martin O'Malley naming two and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. naming three.

BUILD members - many still dressed in their Sunday best - stood and cheered often during the two-hour session. They heard from the pastors of several city churches, but the Rev. Joe Muth of St. Matthew's may have best expressed coalition members' frustrations.

"I have seen all kinds of conversations and listened to people in dialogue, but you know what? I am angry," he shouted. "I am angry because the education of our children is at risk, because somebody was not watching our money, but most of all because of the racism.

"People are talking in a patronizing way as if we don't have a stake in this crisis," he said. "We have a great stake in these schools because our children are there. A fix of this system cannot be imposed from the outside. We want to be part of the solution."

Muth said that state leaders are using "loaded" phrases that imply racism, such as, "They can't help it" and "They don't know any better."

He said BUILD members have heard such phrases before during past school crises, and want to be part of the solution.

"Racism shuts people out and says, 'Your voice and opinion don't count,'" Muth said. "Racism says, 'We don't trust you.' Racism says, 'You don't belong.'"

Other church leaders charged state officials with underfunding city schools - year after year.

They said that unfunded mandates, including required special education programs, have crippled the system.

More recently, school administrators have worked to retool the beleaguered system without significant increases in funding.

"We can do as well as everybody else does if we get the same help as everybody else does," said Tillette.

BUILD members also are asking that teacher salaries not be touched and that there be no more layoffs.

Finally, they demanded that a proposed $42 million loan from the state to the city be turned into a grant. They said it should be construed as a "down payment" on the total amount of state and federal funding owed to the system.

To ensure that students are not affected, BUILD members have volunteered to inspect every school in the system. So far, about 400 people, including 100 members of the city Parent Teacher Association, have said they would visit classrooms and playgrounds.

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