Lockers at a Baltimore City school.

Baltimore city residents have little confidence in their public schools or the system’s CEO, Sonja Santelises, according to a new poll of city residents by The Baltimore Banner, and they identify a lack of funding and poor facilities as major problems.

About 57% of residents disapprove or strongly disapprove of the job Santelises is doing, and 84% said the failure of students to meet academic standards is a major problem.

The Baltimore Now poll, conducted by Goucher College and commissioned by the Banner, surveyed 1,002 Baltimoreans representative of city demographics by cellphone and landline from May 17-23. The poll has a 3.9% margin of error.

“Everybody wants the best for their kids, and when you see some of the challenges that face our school system, it is not surprising that people want better for their kids,” said Roger Schulman, executive director of the Fund for Educational Excellence, a nonprofit that works to improve the system.

Interviews with more than two dozen people by The Banner for a story separate from the poll found many described her as the system’s best leader in decades, though she has clashed with the teachers union and is routinely under assault from state Republicans as well as conservative media outlets over the state of city schools.

When asked to give the schools a grade from A to F, 61% of poll respondents gave the public schools a D, or failing grade. The response was similar whether the respondent had children or not. Just over a third of parents gave the schools a grade of A, B or C. Parents who earn between $100,000 and $125,000 a year and those earning more than $150,000 a year were more likely not to give the schools a failing grade than non-parents of the same income.

Naomi Reetz, 47, has two children at the the Mt. Washington School, one of the city’s stronger elementary and middle schools. “I am really happy with the education my kids are getting,” Reetz said. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Reetz said she had the chance to peek into her children’s classes and saw how engaged they were in their learning and the assignments. “I was impressed and happy,” she said.

“I like that my kids have friends that are different races,” Reetz said.

Her children walk to school and the family feels part of a nice community. She does believe schools could improve.

“Do I wish they had the opportunity to have more music and arts? Yes, but I don’t see paying $30,000 a year to make that happen for them,” she said, referring to the cost of private school.

The lack of support for Santelises may be more representative of a persistent narrative around the city schools. “I am not convinced the average resident can recognize her,” said pollster Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics at Goucher. “I think her numbers are a reflection of how frustrated people are with the public schools.”

Santelises believes the poll reflects, in part, parental concerns about how the pandemic disrupted education, a refrain the school system has heard from the community when the system held focus groups. “They have angst about how they are going to make up two years. There is an understanding there is a complexity of issues,” she said.

Residents overall appear not to see the public schools as a reason to leave the city. Among those who said they have considered moving out of Baltimore, 78% said that the quality of the public schools would not be a reason for relocating. Of parents who responded to the poll, 62% said that it would not be a reason to move.

Santelises said she finds that poll result encouraging because it likely means those parents may not have a good impression of the district as a whole, but are happy with their own public school.

The poll result may also reflect the school system’s work to reduce the number of struggling schools and increasing the interest among parents in those that are successful, she said.

“It says that there is room around the schools that are doing a good job,” she said.

Parents like Christopher George, who lives in Belair Edison, said his son has had a mixed experience in city schools. His son will graduate from Digital Harbor High School this spring, but he said the middle school years were difficult. Too many students, he believes, are being pushed through to the next grade without being proficient academically. “It is not fair to a lot of kids being pushed ... and the teacher has to solve the problems of the previous year,” George said.

George said his son is intelligent and has been able to keep on top of his school work, but not all students are serious.

George believes the city is failing to provide enough support for some students. “I feel like a lot of these kids need a safe zone in their lives and the city isn’t providing it,” he said, adding that the city should open up more police athletic league facilities. A Big Brothers Big Sisters mentor helped George get over difficulties in his youth, and he believes that if more of those types of programs were available, students would benefit.

Poll respondents also believe the city’s teachers are being paid too little money, though some city teachers are among the highest-paid in the state. Most city teachers’ starting pay is $52,000, about the same as teachers in Baltimore, Howard or Montgomery counties. However, city teachers have an unusual contract that allows them to earn extra credits that reward them with higher pay. About 10% of teachers are on a pathway that will let them earn at least $102,900 annually, and another 23 teachers, who are considered the best in the city, earn between $104,000 and $111,900. Those teachers are not paid based on the number of years of experience.

Residents also said the school system does not receive enough state and city funding. While education advocates say city schools have historically been underfunded, this coming year the system will see an unprecedented increase in federal and state funds.

Schulman sees a school system with principals, teachers and central office staff who care about the quality of schools. “I wouldn’t deny the challenges, but I really do think that people want to find solutions to make our school system better, and that smart and good people are working hard,” Schulman said.

Reporter Clara Longo De Freitas contributed to this story.

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