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Baltimore Teachers Union President Diamonté Brown discusses a recent lawsuit over unpaid instructional days, global protests against racism, the movement to defund the police, and calls to remove officers from schools.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Jaisal Noor: Welcome to the Real News, I’m Jaisal Noor. School’s out for the summer, but many questions remain for the public education system. Will schools be able to reopen in the fall? Do districts have the equipment to make this happen safely? COVID-19 has hit school systems with high levels of poverty the hardest. From a lack of resources required for virtual learning, to impending budget shortfalls due to economic shutdowns. All this is unfolding amidst a month long rebellion against racism.

Youth have led protests across the country demanding more resources for schools by cutting police budgets as well as demanding police be removed from schools. Now joining us to discuss this is Diamonté Brown, she’s the president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, lifelong educator and activist. Thank you so much for joining us.

Diamonté Brown: Thank you for having me.

Jaisal Noor: So let’s start with this latest news from Baltimore. The school district says teachers did not work during the day schools were shut down due to COVID and transition to remote virtual learning, and the teachers didn’t like that. They felt that they were working during this time. And you’re in fact, taking the schools to court. You’re filing a lawsuit against the Baltimore school district saying you did work those days. Talk about why the teachers are suing over this.

Diamonté Brown: Well, the exact dates that we are filing a grievance to get a compensation for is March 16th, through March 19th. The COVID time period is much more expansive than that, so we’re not arguing over not working the entire pandemic, we’re just focused on these select dates, March 16th through 19th, where we were working because we needed to make a transition regardless of if our administrators told us to or not, because that’s what educators do.

And so when schools were closed on Friday the 13th, and we were told that now we needed to transition to distance learning, that Monday, March 16, teachers started doing whatever they thought they needed to do to transition to distance learning without any guidelines. They started calling parents. They started trying to think through lesson plans, they started to self-teach online platforms, giving family support, several different things educators were doing during these dates. They were also paid for these dates, because according to the Baltimore Teachers Union contract, we are contracted to work a maximum of 190 days, and we get paid over 216 days.

So we get paid out our salary over a 216-day period, meaning once we work beyond 190 contractual days, we’re working unpaid because our salary doesn’t increase just because we’re working additional days beyond our contract. So now, because we worked March 16th through the 19th, and got paid for it, that’s our position, that’s the Baltimore Teachers Union position.

The district is taking the position that educators did work March 16th and 19th, however, they didn’t explicitly tell us to work therefore whatever work we did was just a regular exploited labor that educators already do like grading papers all night at home, unpaid. Like calling families for four hours every other night to see when their kids are coming back to school, unpaid. All of the things that we do beyond our 7.5 hours every day, the district it seems as attributed these four days to that same type of scenario, unfortunately.
And so, although they recognize our work and say that they appreciate our work during those days, they’re not recognizing them as contractual workdays, therefore their position is because you got paid for these days, but we don’t think you work these days, you owe us four days. And those are the four days that were tacked on to the school year for staff after the 17th, I’m sorry. The 16th was the last day of school for students. The 17th could have been the last day of school for staff numbers.

That decision is up to the CEO and/or the school board. And the Baltimore Teachers Union asked the CEO and the school board to end school for staff numbers on the 17th and they said no. And so the 18th, the 19th, the 22nd, and the 23rd is unpaid labor. And that is why we’re filing a grievance so that way we can get our members compensated for those four days.

Jaisal Noor: So a recent USA Today poll found that one in five teachers say they’re unlikely to return to the classroom in the fall. You talked about the extra work that teachers are doing now, we know that entire communities have been destabilized. Schools were often a safe place for many students, and they don’t have that now. They can’t go to school. A lot of families are out of work, they can’t get assistance. Something like 40% of renters say they won’t be able to pay rent next month, so there’s a huge crisis happening. Talk about what concerns teachers have right now, especially.

Diamonté Brown: Well, unfortunately in Baltimore City public schools, our concerns haven’t shifted. Unfortunately, we already work for a system that doesn’t provide the education that our students deserve. For so long, we have been asking for bare minimum educational needs like the tests that actually come along with the mandated curriculum that we’re supposed to teach. Like air and heating. These things haven’t gone away, and so now they’re just additional needs as far as COVID-19 is concerned, which is, how do we now come up with additional resources when we didn’t even have the resources that we needed to provide a traditional bare minimum in adequate education?

Jaisal Noor: And we’ve all witnessed this global rebellion against racism, demanding this country address its racist origins. And one of the things we’re seeing that are being discussed is curriculum in schools. What kind of history is being taught? I remember when I went to public school in Maryland, figures like Christopher Columbus were held up as heroes starting in elementary school, and then we later went on to learn through our own independent reading that he’s actually responsible for genocide in this country, and treated the native people here absolutely horrible. He carried out all these atrocities.

And I know that the Baltimore teacher’s union has been one of those forces locally that’s been calling for culturally relevant curriculum in Baltimore City schools. Do you think that the school system is going to respond to these global calls and adapt more of these concerns locally as well?

Diamonté Brown: No.

Jaisal Noor: Explain.

Diamonté Brown: Well, the school system for core subjects like math and English, they buy curriculum. So the math curriculum is Eureka Math, and the English curriculum is Wit and Wisdom. These [inaudible 00:08:35] they shop according to them for a curriculum that is culturally relevant. However, the district’s idea of culturally relevant is having a book with a black face on it, having a book about a black person. Reading a poem by Nikki Giovanni. That’s not culturally relevant curriculum. I don’t think that right now, our district even understands what a culturally relevant curriculum is in order for them to be able to adopt that way of thinking.

Jaisal Noor: I also wanted to ask you, many school districts around the country are facing huge shortfalls. I was looking at some of the numbers, Colorado, $500 million in cuts, Georgia, one billion, Idaho, 99 million. We know that the Baltimore school system’s budget is going to remain flat, but Governor Larry Hogan, he vetoed the Kirwan Commission, which would have invested billions of more dollars in schools statewide. What’s your response to the fact that the budget remains flat, and that Larry Hogan says schools don’t deserve more money because of this turn down, the economic shutdown due to COVID?

Diamonté Brown: Well, if the budget is flat, that means for me that the district shouldn’t be coming for my members’s healthcare insurance and asking them to take any shorts on their healthcare insurance or anything like that. And when we ask for raises, we should be able to get them since the budget is flat. And Governor Hogan’s response wasn’t due to COVID, I think COVID was used as an excuse not to provide children the education they deserve. I think it connects to what you asked me earlier about resources. How can we depend on our government and our school districts to provide us the necessary resources post-COVID, when they weren’t willing to give them to us pre-COVID? It’s very concerning.

Jaisal Noor: And so we know that places like Baltimore City, they spend far more on policing than they do on their own school system. And there’s been a growing movement calling to defund police and to put more resources in things like schools here in Baltimore, BTU membership back Brandon Scott, who just won the democratic primary for mayor, and he’s committed to making tens of millions of dollars in cuts to the police budget over the next few years and put some of that money towards public schools. What’s your response to this movement saying that schools need more funding? And if we invested in schools, we wouldn’t need to invest so much money… Baltimore City spends more than any other large city on its school system in the whole country.

Diamonté Brown: So my initial response is I’m all about abolishing the police department and removing school police. However, my membership may not be as settled in their position on these matters as I am, so therefore there’s a lot of education and data collection that I need to do with my membership to understand what the BTU’s position is. However, one of the things that I noticed in Baltimore City public schools specifically is that many of the school police officers in our buildings are black males. And I think that creates this dynamic that many people shy away from this notion of dismantling or removing school police. And I just want to add another perspective that I think that the reason why the school police and Baltimore City public schools are normally black males is because America a lot of times puts black males in roles of enforcement and discipline.

So a lot of times in Baltimore City public schools, all of our black males are like the hall monitors that are underpaid, school police officers, and so naturally our students, especially our black boys, they’re drawn to the black male school police officers because they don’t have a black male teacher in their classroom, a black male principal, a black male guidance counselor, a black male school secretary.

And so I just want people to expand what it looks like to have black male representation in school. And if we’re continuously saying we’re underfunded and I’m telling you, I don’t have the necessary novels to teach my students about themselves, then I don’t understand how we spend so much money on having school police at the expense of not being able to provide students a basic education.

And then additionally, in Baltimore City public schools, the school police are very limited in what they can do. They can’t carry a weapon. They can’t do an arrest. So the things that people think they want school police in schools for, they don’t do that anyway.

So I think there’s a lot of education that needs to be given. I think that people need to stop just solely looking at black males as an enforcer, as someone who needs to be physical in order to be respected and validated, and I think that we need to pay black males more that are in our school buildings, so that when we do ask them to be engaged in our children’s lives, we’re not treating them like second class citizens and giving them low pay. Because what that does is it… [inaudible 00:15:38] assume that something like the police force probably pays more, has more benefits than maybe even an educator, unfortunately.

So I think the conversation is a very expansive conversation. I have my own personal views, but as a leader of a 7,000 member organization, my main goal is to educate my membership on all the different perspectives, to give them the opportunity to share their different perspectives, and to make certain they they understand what the community wants, and that they understand what the consequences are of not following what the community wants and what the advantages are of us [inaudible 00:16:26].

Jaisal Noor: All right Diamonté Brown, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union. Thank you so much for joining us. We know that you’ve been extremely busy these last few months dealing with everything that’s going on, so we really appreciate your time and for sharing your insight with us. We appreciate it.

Diamonté Brown: Thanks for having me.

Jaisal Noor: Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.