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Baltimore Council President demands hearing over closed-door public school task force

Baltimore Council President demands hearing over closed-door public school task force
Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young is calling for a hearing with public school officials over a close-door enrollment task force. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young wants public schools officials to come to City Hall to explain why they have convened a task force to work behind closed doors to devise strategies for increasing enrollment with little parent or student involvement.

Young is questioning the representation on the task force. He said he will introduce a resolution at Monday's City Council meeting to call for a hearing with school officials to discuss who was appointed to the 22-member group.

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Baltimore Public Schools' CEO, Sonja Santelises, established the task force in November with representatives from businesses and charities. But Young said the council should have been given a voice in the process.

"My real concern is I didn't see the diversity in terms of parents, our large Hispanic population," Young said. "I'm hoping that more parents can be invited to sit at the table. I'm hoping that I can appoint someone from the council to sit at the table, some young people to sit at the table."

The Democratic council president says in his resolution that Hispanic families, the fastest-growing segment of the school community, are not properly represented on the task force.

"It is questionable whether a group can really understand and address a problem caused by the collective decisions of thousands of parents and students without meaningful participation and input from parents and students," Young says in the resolution.

The task force is digging into school system data and focusing on schools with declining enrollment. It will also examine the points in students' lives at which they stop attending schools. Subgroups within the task force are trying to figure out how to market Baltimore schools and improve customer service.

A spokeswoman for Santelises said the schools chief was traveling Friday and was not available to comment. Santelises said at a school board meeting Tuesday that she established the task force to solicit ideas about how to increase enrollment.

"We knew that one committee, one task force, meeting twice, was not going to address the heart of enrollment issues in this district, which is part of why we have other bodies of work and extensions going forward," she said. "This is not the only thing that we do."

Parent activists said the task force is the latest in a series of examples of what they perceive as the school system's lack of interest in tapping them and their children for ideas to improve public schools.

Khalilah M. Harris, a former federal education official under President Barack Obama, said the school system routinely relies on the same pool of outside experts, and fails to engage community members early in projects.

"Community members should be engaged at the front end and not just community members who give millions of dollars or make millions of dollars," said Harris, the parent of a city third-grader. "The schools are ours. They don't belong to the school district."

Enrollment in the city's public schools grew between 2011 and 2015, according to state data, peaking at 84,976. This year, the number has fallen to 80,590, a 10-year low.

The number of students in the schools directly affects the amount of money the system receives under state funding formulas.

Young calls declining enrollment a significant problem for the city. He said the public needs more access to the task force's work.

"A closed-door policy simply doesn't allow the public to get answers to those questions," he says in his resolution.

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City leaders, including Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, have limited influence over the schools. But they have focused increasingly on the system as they devise ways to attract and retain young families who often leave the city when their children are ready to attend school.

Pugh faced a $130 million budget gap in the school system almost as soon as she took office in 2015. Widespread heating outages in the schools this winter attracted national attention.

Young's call for a hearing follows a formal complaint about the task force filed by a parent of a city student.

Melissa Schober, who has a daughter in the fourth grade, asked the Maryland attorney general's office to review whether holding the meetings privately violated the state open meetings law. Schober said she also was troubled by the makeup of the task force.

"The lack of equity focus in light of what has happened in the city in the last few years is appalling and unacceptable," she said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this article.

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