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Payback time for the governor Schools: Community activists who turned out the vote want the state to turn on the cash flow.


MARYLAND LT. GOV. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was invited the other afternoon to "walk for success" in the neighborhoods around Dr. Bernard Harris Elementary School in East Baltimore.

After the tour, Townsend stood with her hosts among the broken glass and cracked pavement behind the school on North Caroline Street. She asked about the "platform" of BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development), the activist group that during the summer had registered about 10,000 city voters and had been credited with pushing Townsend and her running mate, Parris N. Glendening, over the top in the governor's race.

"You're standing on the platform," said Carlos Brown, the Bernard Harris PTA president. "We want a playground right here."

It's payback time for the governor. To be reimbursed for services rendered are BUILD and the Child First Authority, the independent, nonpartisan after-school program spawned by BUILD in the last city election three years ago.

A bundle of motives spurred Brown, a 34-year-old post office custodian, to pound the pavement in search of lapsed voters. One motive was the "pure satisfaction of it." Another was "a chance to bring my vision to my community, to have my voice heard."

Major motive

But a major motive was "to get something in return" -- in this case a secure playground with swings and slides, a soft surface and lighting, a place where Brown's three children, all students at Bernard Harris, could play safely nights and weekends. A place that would contrast with the open-air drug market just south of the school.

Brown was not alone in the effort. Anthony Walters, the Child First chess coach at Bernard Harris, signed up 32 voters and made sure they got to the polls. For a living, Walters, 45, transports test papers for the city school system. Evenings, he and his wife, Vivian, son Anthony Jr. and daughter Antoinette -- both children "graduated" from Harris -- worked to turn out the vote.

The Bernard Harris folks say they registered 500 new voters within a few blocks' radius and got most of them to the polls -- where, of course, the vast majority voted for Glendening/Townsend. Forty-eight new voters registered in the block of North Eden Street behind the school.

Before the election, the governor committed $2 million during his second term to the Child First Authority, which funds after-school programs for up to $80,000 at Bernard Harris and nine other city schools.

But BUILD has much more on its list, which the organization is glad to send to any politician: $35 million over four years for city school construction, $2.5 million for projects such as the Bernard Harris playground, and state funding for the Head Start preschool program.

Budget surplus

"We knew political organizing was particularly urgent this year," says Walters, "because unlike previous elections, there's a budget surplus this time. We want some of it."

Why not? asks BUILD. For 21 years, the church-based organization has been tending Baltimore's grass roots. Its philosophy, propounded by the late community organizer Saul Alinsky, is that there's nothing dirty about politics, or about parents using "relational power" to get what they want.

"Politics is a fact of life in education," says Carol D. Reckling, Child First's executive director. "When you talk about resources in education, that's a political conversation."

Though it was created by city ordinance two years ago, the authority seeks a steady stream of income. By all rights, that stream's headwaters should be companies and organizations that receive public subsidies: the Ravens, for example, or the new Inner Harbor hotels.

The Peter and Georgia Angelos Foundation gave $500,000 to Child First two years ago, but that's chicken feed to Angelos, the man who committed $65 million Monday to put surly slugger Albert Belle in an Oriole uniform for five years.

Child First's Reckling can do the math: "For $2 million, we could expand to 20 schools," she said. "Albert Belle's contract could keep us going for 30 years. Something's wrong with this picture."

Lucretia Coates, the Bernard Harris principal, says the Child First program at her school is starting to reflect in higher test scores. In one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, Bernard Harris was one of the top 14 city schools in last spring's round of achievement testing, and the school was praised by the state a couple of weeks ago for improvements in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

"There's a lot of pride in having done that," says Walters. "You know, we were so caught up in our private lives that we never knew we were connected."

Pub Date: 12/02/98

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