BALTIMORE - Students at the Baltimore School for the Arts boycotted their classes May 13 to protest the layoff of teachers and other cutbacks forced by budget cuts in the city, state and nation.
Dozens of students, African American, Latino and white, rallied on the sidewalk across from their downtown school holding hand-lettered signs that proclaimed "Speak Out Against Budget Cuts" "Knowledge is Power" and "Our Education, Our Future." There was a steady chorus of passing motorists honking in support of the protest as the students cheered and waved their signs in greeting.
Toddrick Bowens, a senior music student who helped organize the protest, told the those assembled, "We came out here to take a stand. Hold your heads high. There are a lot more students inside who sympathize with us, who support what we are doing but are too scared to join us. See, they are all waving out the windows."
And in fact nearly every window in the eight-story former Alcazar Hotel was crowded with students smiling and waving to the demonstrators below. One tall youth walked across the street. "I'm sorry I have to go inside; good luck with your rally. I support what you're doing," he said.
The students reported on the intimidation experienced by those who planned on attending. Students were pulled aside individually and told by administrators that they were "greedy" and "spoiled" and claimed that speaking out against the cuts would only lead to more teachers being laid off. The administrators watched from school property with a beefed up police presence, taking notes on which students were participating, and, it's now believed, the students who were protesting were suspended for their actions. Despite that, the students said they aren't scared of retaliation from administrators and warned, "They'll be cutting your job next!"
Mike Gary's mother rolled down the window of her car and called her son over, handing him a pack of poster paper to paint signs on. "My mom supports me all the way," Gary said. "She's a parent liaison at another school where they were forced to fire several teachers because of the budget cuts. They just didn't have the money. It's bogus that they don't have money. This is a question of priorities. We are smart kids but if they keep cutting money for our public schools America is going to lose."
Matt Bolton, a senior in the visual arts, held a sign reading, "Money for Education not Occupation." He told this reporter, "I think the reason for all these cutbacks is misappropriation of funds. Afghanistan, Iraq; we're everywhere trying to fix other countries' problems when we have enough problems right here at home."
He said the protest is aimed at the cutbacks at the school. "But we don't want to make this only about our school. We are protesting what's happening to all the schools in the Baltimore school system. We have lost three teachers but many have lost 12 or 14 teachers." [Most, if not all, of those furloughed will be reassigned to other schools, not permanently laid off.]
The Baltimore Board of Education is struggling with deep budget cuts, even though the Democratic-majority Maryland General Assembly and Gov. Martin O'Malley restored tens of millions of dollars cut from education funding to offset a $1.6 billion state budget deficit.
The School for the Arts is considered a crown jewel of the Baltimore school system, with many graduates winning stardom on Broadway and in Hollywood. Tupac Shakur, once a member of the Young Communist League, attended the school. The Young Communist League branch in Baltimore is named the Tupac Shakur Club in his memory.
Ethan Maszczewski, a sophomore theater arts major, assailed the warped priorities. "The city is spending millions paving streets and building a giant ferris wheel to get ready for the Grand Prix," he said. "That money could cover the salaries of dozens of teachers, pay for text books, and other costs of keeping our schools going." The Baltimore Grand Prix is a racecar sporting event.
Alexandra Cruz-Wright, also a sophomore theater arts student, said was speaking out for the rights of teachers. "We have built a relationship with our teachers. Students not just here but across the country need to care about the bonds we have formed with our teachers and take a stand for preserving those bonds."
Bowens echoed that feeling. He expressed his regrets that among the teachers receiving a pink slip at school was the health-physical education teacher Donald N. Wheeler. "He's been so inspirational for many students here at the School for the Arts. He's taught me so many things about character, being a good person in general. His class is very necessary. I didn't think so at the beginning of the year but being in his class, he has taught me to be a better person."
While the city claims that these cuts are needed to balance the city's education budget, Andres Alonzo CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools is now planning on hiring 16 new administrators all to be paid six figure salaries. Also, the city is proposing enhancing Baltimore's inner harbor with things like a giant ferris wheel mimicking London's and a $2 million "Eiffel tower," which will take tourists to a 130-foot view of the city.
Presumably, these tourists will be able to see a panoramic view of the city, including the schools that are suffering from the cutbacks. Tourists that will most likely not leave the surrounding inner harbor area or contribute to any economy but that of the high-end retail stores and restaurants surrounding the area and stadiums.
TJordan Farrar is the chair of the Tupac Shakur Club in Baltimore and a former student of the Baltimore School for the Arts. Photo: Jordan Farrar/PW