Dozens of advocates crammed into Sandtown community center Friday to protest Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's budget — which does not include $4.2 million for community and after-school programs currently funded by the city.
"It's April Fool's Day, but nobody's fooled by the money the mayor has taken out," said John P. Comer, lead organizer for Maryland Communities United, before leading the group in a chant of "Fund our schools!"
The money the advocates seek pays for 2,500 children to participate in after-school programs, plus six community schools. Many of the programs help youths near the site of the rioting that engulfed West Baltimore last April, advocates said.
The protest at the center, called the Penn North Kids Safe Zone, comes after Rawlings-Blake proposed a $2.6 billion city budget this week that was full of what the mayor called "tough choices." The budget included $10.4 million more for the city's public school system — part of a deal to get $12.7 million more from Gov. Larry Hogan's state budget.
The amounts help close a $24 million drop in state education funding caused by rising property values and declining student enrollment in Baltimore.
City officials said funding for community schools and after-school programs needed to be cut to give more to the school system.
"There was a lot of difficult choices that had to be made in the budget," said Howard Libit, Rawlings-Blake's spokesman. "We encourage people to communicate but everyone needs to understand that the budget is in a very challenged place this year."
The advocates were joined by City Council members Mary Pat Clarke, Bill Henry and Carl Stokes, who pledged to fight the administration to increase funding for the after-school programs. Last year, the council successfully pressured the administration to fund the programs.
"When the administration wants to fund something, they find a way to do it," Henry said.
Ericka L. Alston, spokeswoman for the Penn North Kids Safe Zone — which serves more than 3,000 children — said her after-school program has been running on donations for a year. She said she's hopeful the city will provide money but is worried the organization might have to close down if it doesn't.
"We were birthed out of the uprising," Alston said. "We transformed a vacant laundromat into a safe place for children. ... Our biggest fear is these children will walk up the steps, turn the doorknob and find us no longer open."
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Baltimore currently funds 55 community schools with more than $10 million — part of a plan through which the city, the school system and the Family League of Baltimore connects schools with community organizations, providing education and activities for students and families after hours and on weekends. Three Baltimore community schools received national awards last year.
Next year's proposed budget provides about $6 million in funding.
At Kids Safe Zone, Tyesha Harrell, who lives in the nearby Gilmor Homes, said only one of her three daughters has been able to get into a mentoring program because there are not enough spaces available for the others. She said restoring funding could help more kids get one-on-one attention.
"I urge the mayor to increase, not cut, this money for our kids," she said.