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Freezing classrooms spark heated debate over Baltimore’s school infrastructure

Baltimore City Public Schools faced outrage from parents after images emerged of students wearing coats in a freezing classroom. More than a third of schools reported a lack of heat this winter during a cold snap, and that’s just one of the many problems plaguing the school system’s crumbling infrastructure, underscoring a larger debate about long-term funding and investment. John Yang reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first: a pair of stories in Baltimore, and the serious problems residents face with some civic institutions.

    Schools in Maryland's biggest city close occasionally due to winter weather, but the problems in Baltimore public schools this season have highlighted much bigger questions.

    Outrage erupted last month after students found themselves in frigid classrooms when heating systems failed in at least 60 schools. It's opened up a larger debate about funding and fixing them.

    John Yang has both of our reports tonight, beginning with our weekly segment, Making the Grade.

  • Woman:

    We got to protest and we got to stand up for our kids as parents.

  • John Yang:

    In the jam-packed cafeteria of an East Baltimore high school, the head of the city's school system faced frustrated parents.

  • Woman:

    What happened to the maintenance keeping that school up?

  • Woman:

    I agree with you. And you should be angry.

  • John Yang:

    What sparked this heated outpouring? Images that went viral on social media in early January of children bundled in coats, hats and scarves in aging classrooms barely warmer than the frigid temperatures outside.

    More than a third of the city's 171 public schools, the oldest in state, reported a lack of heat. A handful closed for repairs. Boilers and pipes froze and burst, flooding classrooms, collapsing ceiling tiles and ruining newly upgraded equipment.

    While the problems were brought on by a brief cold snap, they underscored longstanding funding issues. Parents and teachers demanded answers, as did students.

  • Jon Gray:

    Everybody wants to succeed, and it's hard for students, or it's hard for teachers to help their students succeed if it's cold, if it's freezing cold.

  • John Yang:

    Jon Gray is a sophomore at Baltimore City College, a selective-admissions college prep high school. He says he had seen heating problems before, but nothing like this.

  • Jon Gray:

    So, let's say I have failed a class. I can go to coach class, so I can study up. But if I come to school, and there is no heat, I can't really go downstairs and cut the heat on. So it makes students feel, like, powerless.

  • John Yang:

    What does it feel like to come to a school where the heat is so bad, you have to wear your coat in class? There are signs in the bathroom telling you not to drink the water?

  • Jon Gray:

    Kind of just makes you look back, like, where is our support? When are things going to, like, move or change for us?

  • John Yang:

    Rosalyn Taylor's son Jaden (ph) is a fifth-grader at Leith Walk Elementary/Middle School in North Baltimore, one of the schools that closed.

  • Rosalyn Taylor:

    When I went to pick Jaden up from school, I noticed that it was really, really cold in the building. And I was like, why is it so cold in here? And they was like, well, we didn't have any heat.

  • John Yang:

    What does this make you think of the Baltimore Public Schools?

  • Rosalyn Taylor:

    I think about transparency of what is happening with the funding that we get for each student. Where's the money going? And where's my taxpayer dollars going?

  • John Yang:

    Baltimore City schools have a $1.3 billion operating budget. Nearly three-quarters of it comes from the state of Maryland. Despite that state aid, city schools still had to close a $130 million deficit in the last spending year.

    The school board is still making cuts everywhere, including to maintenance. Between 2013 and 2017, Maryland allocated $12.8 million to Baltimore to deal with aging schools. After the cold snap, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced he would spend $2.5 million of the state's emergency fund on immediate repairs.

    He also said he would give Baltimore schools an additional $11 million next year. Hogan said his administration has made school heating and cooling projects a priority. He blames district leadership for maintenance problems.

  • Gov. Larry Hogan:

    We simply cannot allow children to be punished year after year because their adult leaders are failing.

  • Dr. Sonja Santelises:

    We resort to a knee-jerk response of, it must be mismanagement.

  • John Yang:

    Sonja Santelises is the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools.

  • Dr. Sonja Santelises:

    Baltimore City has more need. You can't look at underfunding for numbers of years and then say for a year or two we're going to give you $10 million more, and that makes up for the millions upon millions of dollars that the school system didn't get. I actually think that's a bit disingenuous, and it's overly simplistic.

  • John Yang:

    She says part of the problem is how the state awards maintenance funding. Districts with cash on hand can pay for repairs and then ask for reimbursement. But Baltimore schools often can't afford to pay for those projects up front.

  • Dr. Sonja Santelises:

    We're coming with a guess, where other counties are coming with a receipt. If I'm going to take responsibility for improving the maintenance of school buildings, the oversight of those school buildings, then, quite frankly, others need to take responsibility for making sure the investment and the funds are there.

  • John Yang:

    A 2012 report from the district found 69 percent of schools in very poor condition and estimated it would take $2.5 billion to update them.

    Rosemont Elementary/Middle is one of the schools in need of repair. The school's 47-year-old roof was scheduled to be replaced in January, until the school told parents there was asbestos.

  • Bryant Whitener:

    I was frustrated. I was frustrated. I was angry. I was betrayed, misled.

  • John Yang:

    Bryant Whitener's 5-year-old daughter, Jamaya (ph), is a pre-K student at Rosemont.

  • Bryant Whitener:

    When these parents in this community or in any community wake up in the morning, the first thing they don't want to have to worry about is, is it safe for my child to go to school inside of the building?

  • John Yang:

    Whitener and other parents organized a school boycott, keeping their children at home until the district rescheduled the repairs for the summer break.

  • Bryant Whitener:

    I would rather have my kids in an environment where's it's a zero risk. Not a small risk. Not 1 percent. Not a 2 percent. Not a half-percent.

  • John Yang:

    In 2013, Baltimore school officials launched a 10-year, billion-dollar upgrade to nearly two dozen schools, the 21st Century School buildings plan.

  • Dr. Sonja Santelises:

    What you see now is an investment of over $1 billion, because we knew we needed new schools.

  • John Yang:

    Fort Worthington Elementary/Middle School was one of the first to be rebuilt.

    Monique Debi is the principal.

  • Monique Debi:

    It feels good to be in a space that has technology for children, that has interactive smart boards. We have the flex furniture here and a collaborative space.

  • John Yang:

    As a school principal and as an educator, what does it mean to be in a facility like this?

  • Monique Debi:

    I think this atmosphere speaks to the investment that we're making in our children and our families and in their future. And so when they have what they need to learn and the basic need is met, the worry is less, and you're able to focus more on teaching and learning.

  • John Yang:

    But the plan only calls for between 23 and 28 new buildings out of at least 140 in need of repair, and is completion now set for 2021. For Jon Gray, the Baltimore City college sophomore, that's too few and too far in the future.

  • Jon Gray:

    I can't worry about whether or not I know everything on this test to pass if I can't even focus. I'm cold. We need an answer now, because while we're building those schools, students are still cold. The water is still dirty. We need money to be able to build our 21st century schools, but at the same time keep up the schools we have now.

  • John Yang:

    Without long-term solutions to decades-old funding problems, Baltimore students are likely to continue to struggle in classrooms that are either too cold or, with spring approaching, too hot for learning.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Baltimore.

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