‘A third-world environment’

Baltimore’s Freezing Classrooms Are Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Past the cold are rat infestations, cooling systems that fail in the summer, and the crippling morale of students who feel unwanted and ignored in literally crumbling buildings.

im Hairston/Baltimore Sun/TNS via Getty

BALTIMORE—Dozens of Baltimoreans crammed into a small room at Baltimore City School’s headquarters Tuesday to voice their frustrations with the heating failures that left their children in freezing classrooms, while hundreds more were placed in an overflow room.

At the meeting, I sat next to Lakesha Diggs, a nurse and mother of three children in Rosemont Elementary/Middle School. The school notified her on Dec. 7 that there may be asbestos there; her children haven’t been back since.

“I’m picking up work every day. They’re still completing their projects. They’re doing work… but it’s not the same,” said Diggs to The Daily Beast.

“I’m having to take time off work. I’ve not been able to have a full work week since this has happened.”

BCS has a long and well-documented history of subpar learning conditions, and Baltimoreans are often unfairly scapegoated for the failures of a system in which all the cards are stacked against them. Diggs was one of many attendees who plays an active role in her children’s education. She attends PTA meetings, school board meetings, and even contacts the mayor’s and governor’s offices to fight for her kids’ education, but still sees little progress.

The Maryland school systems are largely dependent on the tax base of the residents in each school system, and Baltimore City is one of the poorest areas in the state. In 2016, the median household income in Baltimore City was $44,262 with a per capita income of $27,129. Almost 23 percent of its residents lived below the poverty line, which is $24,000 a year for a family of four.

The result is that BCS has little money for necessary improvements. Neighboring Baltimore County has budgeted $116 million for school capital projects in 2018, Baltimore City had just $17 million, along with an emergency $2.5 million from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to address the heating failures.

City children have been stuck in dilapidated schools for decades because their parents are poor, creating a vicious cycle of inadequate education, unemployment, and crime that few—even those with committed parents like Diggs—escape from.

“They don’t care about y’all kids. They are setting them up for a new form of slavery: prison!” said another parent at the school board meeting.

Baltimore politicians have long recognized this problem and in 1997 then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke devised a new plan and made a deal with the state to hopefully inject more funds into BCS.

He separated BCS from the control of the Baltimore mayor’s office, and made it an independent entity controlled by both the state and the city. An independent CEO and 10 school board members run the day-to-day operations of BCS. That arrangement has left many parents unsure who to ask or pressure for help—the governor, the mayor, or BCS itself. Ideally, the change would have meant more state funds for BCS, but that hasn’t necessarily been the case.

“That works sometime when you have a Democratic governor and a Democratic mayor,” says Marietta English, the president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, to The Daily Beast. But when there is a Republican governor, she said, party politics get in the way and progress can grind to a halt in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.

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Under the previous governor, Democrat Martin O’Malley, BCS created 21st Century Schools, a $1 billion project to rebuild, renovate, and repair city schools. In August of 2017, it opened Fort Worthington Elementary/Middle School, its first newly constructed school; more have opened since. This crisis would have been much worse without this program, but obviously much more needs to be done.

Baltimore hasn’t had a Republican mayor since Theodore McKeldin in 1967, and those in attendance definitely did not think that Gov. Hogan—who used the heating crisis to propose an “investigator general” to root out what he describes as corruption, mismanagement, and incompetence in Maryland school systems—was adequately addressing the city’s current crisis. Hogan didn’t mention the state funding policies that have resulted in BCS losing $66 million for education in the last decade.

When something goes wrong in a system where more than 80 percent of students are African American, and more than 10 percent are Latino, of course Hogan suggests that the heat gave out not because of state policies that drain money from city schools, but because of supposed corruption.

“We know why the knee jerk reaction is always to do an audit on Baltimore City Schools,” said BCS CEO Sonja Santelises at the school board meeting.

Throughout Tuesday’s meeting, Baltimore residents and BCS teachers brought up myriad problems beyond the brutal cold—including rat infestations, cooling systems that fail in the summer, and the crippling morale of students who feel unwanted and ignored in literally crumbling buildings.

“Our children are being forced to learn in a third-world environment,” said a Baltimore City parent. “All these kids deserve a fighting chance. It is our duty to give them a fighting chance.”