Longtime educator gives an inside view of deplorable conditions and poor learning environment as city officials prepare to layoff nearly 1000 employees to address budget deficit crisis.
TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland. The crumbling Baltimore city school system faces yet another setback. School CEO Sonja Santelises says the $129 million deficit is due to declining enrolment and generous teacher contracts. The rhetoric(?) is prompting cutbacks with layoffs planned for over 1,000 employees, including teachers.
But questions about money usually land here, at North Avenue. It’s the home of the city school bureaucracy, which some say it’s just bloated, but wasteful. As part of our ongoing investigation into the details of how the city does and does not work, we have an exclusive interview with a city teacher who peels back the curtain on spending and reveals just how bad city schools are – before the cuts – and he also offered solutions on how to serve teachers and students better.
We disguised his identity in order to protect him from retaliation. Now, Stephen, the monies that were generated by the casinos that were supposed to be allotted to the school budget, what happened to them?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, as an excellent article by Luke Water from the Baltimore Sun pointed out, out of the $1.7 billion that has been taken in by casinos, very little of it has gone to fund increases in funding for school, which is where the money was promised, which just shows that the city is always in a rock and a hard place. We have casinos, but the city has actually experienced budget cuts since the casinos have opened, so it hasn’t worked out for the city.
You put on top of that the tax breaks, like TIS(?) which technical reduce the city’s overall assessed value and thus reduce the amount of money that the school(?) gets from the state based on funding mechanisms, and the school system is actually suffering even more.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, Mayor Catherine Pugh just agreed in the Consent Decree that she was going to allot a fair amount of money for the Baltimore City Police Department. What does this mean for schools?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, this again shows how Baltimore continues to fund policing, but schools are always secondary. The biggest part of the city budget goes to police funding, about $500 million – a fraction of that, $200 and something million goes to teachers. Recently, the mayor said she was allotting $3 million to hire 100 more police officers to fill patrol positions, meanwhile they’re going to cut $129 million from school. It’s not that they’re going to cut, it’s that the school has a deficit that they can’t pay for. So if the school system was funded as much as the police department there wouldn’t be a budget deficit. So, clearly we’re still in that dilemma where we’re paying more to police than we are to teach.
TAYA GRAHAM: And now let’s go to our interview with our whistleblower.
WHISTLEBLOWER: I’ll give you a typical day. The bell will ring, many kids won’t come to class. They’ll be in the hallway. There’s supposed to be staff and administrative staff to deal with that, but kids are still in the hallway. By first or second period, I’ll already smell pot in my room, in the hallway. There’s no censorship of any language. What I hear all day, I hear, “Shit,” “Bitch,” “Motherfucker,” “Nigger,” all day, and then every combination of that – all day, every day. They’ll talk to the teacher that way, to other kids. There’s no consequence for that.
Truancy is a big problem in and outside of the school. No discipline, no consequences. And we haven’t even gotten to academically where the kids are. They’ve tested the i-Ready test this year. Ninety-seven percent of the seniors were reading on a… not on a 12th grade level. Ninety-seven percent. Only 3% of the kids were reading on a 12th grade level, and the average grade level was about 5th grade to 6th grade. They are – in all fairness – they are over-tested. I think we had 24 weeks of testing this year. So they have these testing windows in which they’re supposed to carry on this test, but they had all the kind of pre-tests you have in every class in the beginning, when you come in, so teachers can see where you are. They have i-Ready testing, then they have HSA testing in October. They have HSA testing again in December. They have PARCC testing in the beginning of the year, also. Then they have PARCC testing again right after the holiday with the HSA testing again. Then they’ll have PARCC testing and i-Ready testing and HSA testing – or whatever new test comes down the pipeline – again in the end of the year. Which basically destroys the fourth quarter. So it’s testing, testing, testing, testing, testing all the time. And there are other tests, too, standardized tests. So that’s a big problem also.
STEPHEN JANIS: How does that limit your ability to teach? I mean, what does it do to your ability to teach?
WHISTLEBLOWER: Well, I mean, it’s a… first of all, it’s a huge disruption in your day. Kids are in and out of the class or… and that lends to them being more truant, because now they have an excuse to run around some more. The stat I just gave you on the reading, well, if all you’re testing is reading comprehension, so that’s less time for instruction, the kids are lacking in reading skills, then they’re being tested for the reading skills, which we already know they’re lacking, so of course we know they’re not going to perform well on the test. I mean, the kids are… which is unfair, and you can’t use other types of metrics because the state or the city has invested in these private
Princeton Review and stuff like that, you know, they’re given all this money from all over the country to give you these tests.
STEPHEN JANIS: Tell us about the physical environment.
WHISTLEBLOWER: There is mouse and rat feces in every room. I’ve been taking pictures. You just wouldn’t believe there’s feces everywhere. So, you know, if you clean your desk off, you come in the next day, there’ll be mouse feces on your desk again. I’ve had an open window in my room for four years at the particular school I’m at, and I’ve been in three different rooms. So, the heat… inevitably there’ll be no heat for numerous days throughout the year, or it’ll be blistering hot and they won’t close the school. So you’re always cold in the wintertime. And of course, the kids won’t perform at all when it’s cold and hot like that. There are lots of kids truant and unsupervised, and a lot of our kids are very, very challenged. I’ll give you an example. The third of fourth week of school, I had a kid come in who had been put out of the school, I found out later, a couple of years before for his behavior. It’s the first day to my class – this is four or five weeks into the school year – and he didn’t have a uniform. I said, “I have to stop you. Where’s your uniform?” And the first response was, “I’ll fuckin’ shoot you in the face,” for asking for his uniform. And, you know, a couple of other kids were walking down the hallway and they just kinda stood in his way and kind of like backed him up. Didn’t even say anything. Just backed him up, like, you know, you don’t want to mess with that particular teacher. He actually… I wrote him up, administrator got him, he ran out of the administrator’s room, and he was talking to the kid’s parents and tried to attack me again, ran into my room. The administrator had to tackle the boy out of the doorway because he was in the doorway ready to charge in to try to fight me – while I’m teaching a class. And all I asked him – the only words I had with him were, you know, just needing to know where your uniform is, right? So it’s very hostile.
There is no line between adult and student. They’re entering into rooms they’re not supposed to be in unsupervised. They’ll be in a teacher’s lounge or a teacher’s office or on someone’s computer, and always somewhere where they’re not supposed to be.
They’ll be open… you know how you have floor outlets in offices? They’ll be, like, open outlets with wiring sticking out. There are notices in the main office about workers who were coming in to work on the school, be careful about the lead and asbestos. But if you look around the school, there are pipes where the wrapping’s off, there are holes, tiles, asbestos stuff. One of the administrator’s offices, the floor on it was asbestos tile. They had mould and people were starting to have… she was already having respiratory problems and some of the other students. They finally ripped that up and supposedly replaced that. I never saw anybody with hazmat suits or the proper equipment to bring asbestos out of the air – you get the idea.
The room I was in, my first eight, nine years teaching, the woman had died of cancer, and that room had three or four times the asbestos level, because the EPA had tested it, and I had called the EPA, which made the principal very upset, because I wanted to get it tested again, and it had very high levels of asbestos in it.
So teachers and students are being exposed to that kind of thing I guess another ten or twenty years if I come down with asbestosis, you’ll know why, right? I mean, it’s that bad. You can’t drink the water – you know the Clean Air and Water Act – what? – ’73? – said you’ve got to be able to look left and right in any school and water is freely and readily available. You’d be lucky if you could find the water jugs in our school because you can’t drink any of the water. There are signs saying you can’t drink the water, but you can wash your hands with it. And I’m thinking, you know, I’m pretty educated, if I don’t swallow it but I can absorb it through my skin, I guess that’s… that’s okay for the lead water, right?
So there’s no water readily available. Kids are constantly looking for water, and they’re thirsty. And if you get there, the cups may be gone or there’s no water in the jugs, because the jug hasn’t been replaced. So you’ve got to search for water. And of course, that runs into, “Do you have a pass?” “You’re out of class too much.” Kids are going to get distracted, there’s other kids in the hallway, causes other encounters. And we have people that cover all the hallways, but hallways aren’t clear. We have plenty of extra administrators. They’re not allowed to discipline anybody. They have to literally get permission from North Avenue to do anything close to a suspension or anything like that. They can’t even have in-school suspension because it only can be up to 45 minutes because you’re keeping a child from his or her education.
Because they don’t want black boys to have – or minorities in general, but especially black males – to have high rates of suspension. I don’t know if you saw the report last week, bad black kids are suspended four or five times as much as white. So, of course, to keep this down – this is why they don’t report all the violence in schools because we don’t want to be known as dangerous schools. We’re the 19th most dangerous city in the world. You would think that common sense would tell you the school system’s probably pretty rough.
STEPHEN JANIS: So, what is it right now at this point do you think that’s critical about… what’s going on, specifically, that’s critical that people need to know, that they don’t know?
WHISTLEBLOWER: I think that they need to understand that all systems are down. There’s a huge amount of graft and corruption. The kids are being neglected, their civil rights are being trodden upon. Teachers, the staff, very stressful, hostile environment. There’s no discipline. The Code of Conduct is a travesty. The law is not enforced. People are not safe. I mean, I could go on and on and on. It’s just… and I wish it was just one school and you could clean it up, but it’s the whole system.
The whole system is that way, and you could pick out any random teacher and bring them in here and if they were comfortable sharing with you, they would say the same things I’m saying, so I’m not special in that regard, at all.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now you said that you were saved by school in some way, or did I miss-hear you? Can you tell me about that?
WHISTLEBLOWER: Well, you know, when I was younger, I was in the system in Newark, and I couldn’t read, and like a lot of these kids I tested very low. I think I was at that point like one point about retarded. Because that’s when they had the IQ tests, right? Which now we’ve thrown out.
That’s just because I couldn’t read. A typical kid here will act out in some way because he or she is seeing something terrible at home, and they make them a Special Ed. Well, it’s kind of what happened with me. They were, like, okay, he’s woefully deficient blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, but they worked with me on my reading and I went from, at eight or nine not being able to read, to I think the first book I completed was Shogun, which was, like, you know, ten inches thick and little tiny print.
So, that had got me excited, and they worked with you. Right? So, I was the kid that was kind of a product of the street, been displaced, and public school had activities. I was there from early morning – I stayed for, like, 12 hours a day. By the time I got done with extracurriculars and sports, so I might have gone to soccer practice, and then I’m jazz band in the evening. So it kept me busy.
STEPHEN JANIS: What are the consequences if this stuff isn’t addresses? What do you see?
WHISTLEBLOWER: Last year at this time, the consequence was the city burned. You can’t disenfranchise people – you know, the kids might be woefully deficient academically, but they’re not stupid. They can see what’s going on.
WHISTLEBLOWER: I think you’re going to see more what you saw last year with the riots. You had people who are… they want to do well, they know it’s a dead end. I mean, for years, my kids were telling me, “I’m not going to make it past 25.” They don’t have the skill sets. They already have their own issues, you know? Obviously, the home is broken up in this country.
When I was coming up, you know, single parent families were more the exception, not the norm. Now it’s the opposite. The kid has both parents, they don’t tell anybody. It’s almost like a stigma to have your parents, or people in your family that love you, that you’re taken care of. Because everybody’s got to be miserable, and misery loves company, and that’s kind of the attitude. My life’s messed up, so I’m going to make sure everybody around me’s life is messed up.
So I think that we’ve created this underclass of a majority of the population – remember, 80% of the people who get welfare are white people. There’s a lot of poor white people. This is not just a minority thing. The administration’s there to support us. Not to look over our shoulder like Big Brother and try to determine if we misstepped in some way and try to, you know, mete out some sort of consequence for the teachers for being terrible and blame the ills of society on our failure… you know, I may see a kid in a semester, I may see a kid just for… from September to December or the end of January. I might have a semester class, and somehow when they get to me, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th grade, it’s my fault about their whole life, right?
STEPHEN JANIS: Right.
WHISTLEBLOWER: So, it’s like… I may not even see the kid because many of my kids are truant, so I might have very few encounters with this kid, but somehow I’m responsible for everything that occurred in this kid’s life and every action that has happened.
I think that you get into these situations where the administrators are impossibly… they’re not allowed to make any decisions. They’re micro-managed, and so of course, it’s the pecking order. They come down on the teachers because they’re being squeezed. They can’t solve anything. They’re not allowed to have solutions. Any of the talented principals under any of these CEOs get fired. The moment they don’t… they can’t be micro-managed, so they’ll say, “Be creative, do all these things, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” but then when they do… …they fire them. They’re in US News World Report or on CNN, it’s amazing what you’re doing at a school, next thing you know the principal’s fired.
The kids will come out of juvenile detention and they’ll say school is just like jail. Imagine you come to school every day and you’re wanded. Every kid in the schools I’ve been in they’re wanded with a metal detector every day. Their belongings are searched, and they are basically frisked and wanded every day. That’s how they start their day. They’re searched and wanded at the school.
You’re creating these people who are ignorant of the world around them. They don’t have the skill sets to work. So you might think about schools, not college. It’s work. We’re preparing interactive citizens to be part of their democracy, in other words, they’re in charge, they need to vote, they need to be able to do jury duty, they need to pay taxes, they don’t like something they need to be able to go to City Council and petition City Council and make their voice heard or run for office or support somebody or might do something about their surroundings, their neighborhood. What would happen to the county if there’s no heat? You’re not in school. They fix the heat, you come back to school.
You notice last year when they had that big thing about the air conditioning in the beginning of the year? We were dying in the rooms that one week. We had blistering heat and Dr. Thornton, who got fired – thank God – we knew he would not last, he was terrible. No offence, but he was terrible. He said nothing. They have a… if it’s 92 degrees or 920 degrees by eleven o’clock or something they close the school. I mean, it’s 92 degrees? I think it’s got to be 92 degrees. Right? So, we had no heat, but all that story came out about the county schools without air conditioning. Everybody was in an uproar. Not a peep about Baltimore City until, like, eight months later, oh, and Baltimore City, by the way, doesn’t have…
Now, you think of how in the county, it’s much hotter in the city with much older buildings that are dilapidated. These kids were useless, the teachers were useless.
TAYA GRAHAM: If you had the power to make some changes, you could wave a wand and you could actually get the mayor to do something for you, or you could change something in North Avenue, what would you want to see changed? What policy would you want put in place, who would you want to see in charge? What
WHISTLEBLOWER: Well, the first thing is, without discipline you have no control. So if you’re not going to enforce the law, if you’re not going to enforce the rules, you’re not going to make sure the school environment’s safe, you can forget any other thing you were trying to do.
And so that’s the first thing. The other thing is, I would have real food. Spend the money, get people in there cooking food. We know there’s a direct correlation in kids’ behavior. If there are a lot of kids like me when I was a kid, that was probably the best meal I’d get every day. A lot of these kids aren’t eating well, and what they are eating is poisonous and toxic. So you’ve got to change the food.
You also have to have… to me, schools are like the extension of the Department of Social Work. There should be a whole health facility in there. The schools should be open to the wider community, they shouldn’t just be babysitting kids during the day. There should be adult classes. The facility should be able to be used by the community. There’s should be administrators in there in the evening, not just in the morning, to make sure that the school and the people’s money – they’re spending this money – that they have stake and use the pool, they can use the gym, right? Get people to organize those things. It should be a community centre. That’s what they’re paying for.
STEPHEN JANIS: [Tell us} why you decided to come forward, and why you want to talk?
WHISTLEBLOWER: Well, you know, for years we were always told that if we share any information with the press or reporters or whatever, we’d get fired. Which I thought was interesting. I haven’t seen that rule anywhere. But you were always very wary of talking to people about what’s going on in the school system for fear of retaliation in some way. But it’s just to the point now where I really don’t care.
People need to know what’s going on, and the people who do know, I think they either don’t want to deal with it, because these issues are so pervasive, or they’re intimidated and they go in a different direction.
TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.