- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2006

BALTIMORE — More than 200 students skipped school yesterday to protest at City Hall about the blighted condition of their schools, as police officers watched impassively.

“We don’t want to be the Gestapo,” said Maj. Rick A. Hite Jr. of the Baltimore Police Department.

“We were called over by the mayor’s office to make sure [the students] are safe.”

The high school students, led by the politically active Baltimore Algebra Project student group, said the three days of unexcused absences were “student strikes” to protest plans to close five schools and to call for more state money.

“We want our money now, and if we don’t get it, we’ll keep fighting for it,” Adrienne Hall, 14, a freshman and class president at Frederick Douglas High School, said over the public address system set up by the Algebra Project.

Edie House, a Baltimore schools spokeswoman, said the protesters would be marked for an unexcused absence but other disciplinary measures were unlikely.

“Our No. 1 priority is we want our kids in class,” she said. “That’s where they should be. I don’t think the kids there warranted police picking them up.”

Maryland Department of Education spokesman Bill Reinhard did not raise objections to the protests as long as the students make up their school work.

He said the grievances seemed based on “limited information,” such as the system having the capacity for 130,000 students but having roughly 88,000.

The protests started Wednesday in front of the state education department in Baltimore and moved Thursday to the city schools administration building.

The protesters demanded repairs to school buildings, smaller class sizes and art, music, sports and computer classes in every school.

Protest leaders cited a 2000 court ruling in which Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan said the state has shortchanged city schools as much as $800 million. The ruling is under appeal.

However, Baltimore received the most money per pupil — about $5,704 — of any Maryland school district, according to budget records provided by Mr. Reinhard.

In the 2004-2005 school year, Baltimore schools received $502 million from the state, the second largest amount behind Prince George’s County. The Prince George’s system received $541 million but has 136,000 students, which equals about $2,000 less per pupil compared with Baltimore.

Montgomery County, the state’s most populous district, with 139,000 students, got $215 million during that school year, the records state.

Mr. Reinhard said the state thinks more money could be spent in Baltimore classrooms if the school system agrees to close under-utilized schools.

“The system lags behind other systems in the state as far as academic achievement, that’s for sure,” he also said.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat and candidate for governor, met with leaders of the protest for an hour yesterday, and the students described the meeting as constructive.

O’Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said the mayor agreed with the students that the state should “meet the funding obligation to the city.”

However, the mayor told them he does not condone their skipping school, she said.

Jermerriah Talbot, 14, a freshman at the experimental Baltimore Freedom Academy, said she wasn’t worried about getting in trouble and didn’t expect to be marked absent.

“My teachers are in support” of the protest, she said.

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