Tensions rise at City Council discussion of charter-school funding

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on October 8, 2015.
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A large crowd of charter advocates convened at City Hall last night wearing orange T-shirts that read #SAVE THE CHARTERS BMORE. The City Council was discussing a resolution to withdraw a charter funding proposal that had already been withdrawn. The district’s proposal, introduced on Sept. 8, was scrapped on Sept. 22. Councilman Bill Henry, vice chair of the council’s education committee, introduced the resolution on Sept. 21.

Henry’s resolution called upon the school district to “reconsider its inequitable proposed public charter funding formula to ensure that adequate funds are allocated to all Baltimore students in accordance with state law.”

“All members of the Baltimore City Council co-sponsored this resolution,” said Henry at Wednesday’s meeting. “If we all sign onto it, it can’t be that controversial.” He went on to say that he recognized the proposal was already withdrawn, so “in a very basic but important way we already won.” His hope was to use the meeting as an opportunity “to step back” and think these issues through.

Earlier in the afternoon, before the City Council meeting began, Gregory Thorton, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, sent a letter out to families and staff with a district update on the charter-school funding situation. While Thorton expressed a commitment to working with the charter coalition, he said that when the district had originally withdrawn its proposal, it did so under the impression that the charter operators would withdraw their lawsuits too. The district believed this would allow “discussions between us, to be facilitated by former Mayor Kurt Schmoke . . . held publicly, in a spirit of collaboration, and with open dialogue not constrained by pending legal action.”

However, Will McKenna, executive director of Afya Baltimore Inc., an organization that governs charters, challenged the district’s assertion in his testimony last night, saying that none of the charter litigants ever suggested they would drop their lawsuit. “It feels dishonest to have to hear that,” he said.

Councilman Brandon Scott asked the district what evidence they had to suggest that charter operators ever intended to drop their lawsuit. As Dawana Sterrette, the district’s legislative liaison, tried to formulate an answer, parents from the audience tittered. “Honesty is the best policy!” one hollered. “Transparency!” shouted another.

Finally, Sterrette answered that there was “an intermediary” between the school system and the charter representatives, who informed them that the charters would drop their lawsuit if the proposal were scrapped. Sterrette did not name names or provide more concrete details, which was unsatisfying to the crowd.

When I spoke with Bobbi MacDonald, the executive director of City Neighbors Foundation, a few days ago, she told me the litigants had no intention of dropping the lawsuits, but would possibly consider putting their cases on hold.

Kate Primm, the founding principal of the Green School of Baltimore, testified at Wednesday’s meeting, reiterating that the nine operators involved in the litigation had no plans to drop their cases.

The audience was packed with people, mostly charter supporters, but just a few signed up to speak. Several-charter school parents gave speeches, as did a Patterson Park Public Charter School fourth-grader. Kim Truehart, a longtime citizen activist, also offered testimony, pushing the crowd to think more seriously about equity for all of Baltimore’s children.

When I approached Truehart after the meeting, she said she felt the whole evening was just “a publicity stunt” because the mayor, not the council, holds the real power over these issues. Truehart said it “shocked the heck out of her” when Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake decided to intervene in the charter dispute given how hands-off she’s been with education issues generally.

It’s not clear where this all will lead, but several takeaways were evident. One is that the charter advocates aimed to send a message that they believe North Avenue is mismanaging money, which hurts both charter students and traditional students. While everyone acknowledged the need for more state funding, the charter leaders suggested there was more district officials could be doing to efficiently manage their money and get more funds down to the classroom level.

The mediation, led by Kurt Schmoke, will not be binding, but Alison Perkins-Cohen, speaking for the district, said they want it to be a public process, in a public setting, given the funding formula’s impact on the broader community.

It’s not yet clear what the terms of the mediation will be. It was not clear, based on last night’s testimony, whether public mediated talks are a major priority for the charter operators. It is also not clear how having litigation open at the same time as the mediation will impact the parties’ ability to be transparent.

“I don’t understand how Baltimore City Public Schools can be expected to negotiate in good faith with this lawsuit hanging over our heads any more than I can see how Baltimore charter schools can call themselves public schools without paying their fair share of public school costs,” said Ben Dalbey, a city schools parent.

Given that the charter funding formula impacts all district students, and considering that the charter operators are calling for a greater culture of accountability and transparency, finding a way to ensure that the mediation is open to parents, community stakeholders, and reporters seems to be a wise condition for any future effort.

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