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Parent and community advocates demand a seat at the policy-making table when it comes to increasing enrollment in Baltimore City Public Schools; officials claim the Enrollment Task Force is not subject to Open Meetings Act.

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JAISAL NOOR: It’s one of the biggest crises facing the Baltimore school system: plummeting enrollment. Currently, the student population is at a ten year low. This means the historically underfunded school system is losing millions of dollars of badly needed revenue. To address the problem, the school system has convened a task force, which has already met twice. But there is a problem. Some concerned parents and advocates say the fact these doors are close to the public’s eyes and scrutiny violates the state’s Open Meetings Act. In fact, one parent filed an ethics complaint with the state’s attorney general’s office on Monday

Melissa Schober: I did, I filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s office. And the complaint was just that, if it is not a public body, then why was the Chief of Staff and the Board Executive introducing this at a Board Operations Committee meeting in November, with a schedule and mission of the task force? And, it is either an internal group and therefore not subject to public disclosure, or it is not. I’ve been one for transparency of the Baltimore City School Board. They’re appointed, not elected, and that makes it really difficult for parents in the city and other community advocates to get questions answered by the board.

JAISAL NOOR: We asked the school system for comment and they replied, “Because the enrollment task force is not a policymaking body, nor convened by the Board of School Commissioners, their work does not fall under the requirements of the Open Meetings Act.”

Melissa Schober: Then who is convening this group of twenty-two individuals, made up of several members of the current city school board foundations and philanthropy? Are these twenty-two individuals just meeting on their own?

Khalilah Harris: It really doesn’t matter if it falls on the requirements of the Open Meetings Act. The fact of the matter is, the school district needs to shift its philosophy on how it engages in decision making.

JAISAL NOOR: The school systems emphasized they’re also working with a broad range of district stakeholders, including parents, staff, partners and students. And they anticipate there will be a presentation to the board regarding their work, in June. But for advocates, this is not enough, and part of a bigger problem.

Khalilah Harris: All too often, the district takes the position of, “We’re going to call on experts, and then we’re going to ask families what they think of it, and come to a final decision,” when families are experts and should be at the table at the very beginning.

Melissa Schober: So, we have this philanthropy and advocacy community deciding external, without community, without parents, what they think needs to be done with enrollment. I value their expertise and I think that they should be a partner at the table, but they cannot be the only people at the table.

JAISAL NOOR: And with powerful interests backing education secretary Betsy Devos, and Governor Larry Hogan’s push for privatization, and the expansive of voucher schools, advocates say there should be more community involvement in the school system’s decisions, not less.

Melissa Schober: The vultures are circling. There is, from the boost program with vouchers, and Governor Hogan, to push for privatization, to increasing charters, all of those things, there are significant and serious concerns about enrollment in city schools. And when Baltimore City schools and the unelected school board doesn’t embrace parents and advocates as people to be seated at the table from day one, then it turns those well-meaning advocates, people who want to help, people like myself who have time, and are interested to help, Who have children enrolled in public schools, who could help, who could be great advocates for city schools, into adversaries. And that’s unnecessary.

Khalilah Harris: It’s shooting itself in the foot, and it’s shooting our children’s hope for success in the foot, frankly. You can’t exclude people, who are already invested in the district, from conversations about how to strengthen it, and attract more families, when they can tell you best what they love about the district, and the things that are high quality. And frequently, we hear from district officials that we don’t acknowledge the great things that they’re doing. We know what great things are happening in our schools, and can be the best ambassadors for our schools when it comes to other families.

JAISAL NOOR: For The Real News, this is Jaisal Noor.

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Khalilah M. Harris is a host and executive producer at the Real News Network focused on the Baltimore Bureau, education reporting, and social commentary. Khalilah brings a unique perspective to curating content from an extensive career working to expand access to opportunity through an equity lens in community organizing, education, education policy, youth advocacy, and building an inclusive workforce. In addition to her background as an attorney and researcher, Khalilah brings experiences from the grassroots as a founder of a Baltimore City school focused on social justice, to co-founding a local community collaborative called the Coalition of Black Leaders in Education. She organizes nationally with the EduColor movement and served as the first Deputy Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans. A proud alum of Morgan State University, Khalilah also obtained her doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania, and her law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law.