Nearly 500 people attended a D.C. public schools budget hearing yesterday at which some board members were chastised for forgetting "blacks in the street" by proposing to lay off classroom teachers and to eliminate pre-school and adult education programs.
In an emotional meeting that at times resembled a church revival, the criticism seemed directed especially at those school board members who once were community activists -- especially R. Calvin Lockridge (Ward 8), a former stret organizer from Chicago who presided over the hearing.
Also present at the meeting, held at Dunbar High School on New Jersey Avenue NW, were board members Frank Smith (Ward 1), a former civil rights worker and past chairman of the activist Adams Morgan Organization, Board Chairman Eugene Kinlow, former president of the Anacostia Neighborhood School Board, and Bettie G. Benjamin (Ward 5) and Alaire B. Rieffel (Ward 2).
In terms that were simply stated but eloquent, the speakers -- parents, teachers, former dropouts, a former drug user -- praised the legacies of the Great Society.
"A lot of us worked very hard in the 60s to get programs like Head Start," parent Sarah Skinner from Anacostia whispered nervously into her microphone at the speaker's table.
Behind her, people in the audience called out encouragement. "Don't be nervous. Take your time, Sarah," one said.
"But a lot of times we move up and forget black people," Skinner continued, appearing to gain confidence as she spoke. "People are always saying they want to bridge the gap between blacks and whites. But how are we going to bridge that gap when they want to take the bridge away from us? That bridge is education."
Many in the audience gave personal testimonies on how they had been saved by programs the school system, facing a $22 million deficit next year, is now considering eliminating.
There was David Simpson, who told of his life "on the streets," taking drugs and stealing, before he enrolled in the Armstrong Adult Education Center in Northwest Washington to work toward a high school diploma.
"Since I've been at Armstrong, it has been set in my heart and fixed in my mind that I have come a long way. I am at Armstrong every day trying not to go back to the streets," Simpson said.
One woman, who said she was a housekeeper earning $53 a week, said she couldn't even read a bus sign before she enrolled at the Franklin Adult Education Center in Northwest. "Now I can do fractions. I read the newspaper," she said.
Teacher Roxieanna Baskerville of Simon Elementary School in Congress Heights told the board members that nine of the 12 boys in her fifth grade class have been held back at least once since they started school.
"If we as a black race of people continue saying we have to cut this and cut that, our black boys are definitely going to be lost," she said. "We've come from Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King to this modern age and some of us may feel the stuggle is over. But the struggle is just beginning.
"We can see the inroads the Republicans and the conservatives are making. They are turning back the clock," Baskerville said.
Many of the speakers aimed their anger and frustration over the budget cuts directly at their leaders in the city government, which is dominated by former activists, criticizing the high salaries and fringe benefits the officials receive.
"You don't know what it's like to have only $30 in your pocket and to have to make ends meet with that for a whole month," said Fred Nokes, a student at the Franklin Adult Education Center, in an angry exchange with the board members. "You're out there making a big salary, driving a big car, wearing a new suit."
"We elected you to represent us, to show sensitivity to our needs. Now you and the City Council, you want to deprive us of somelthing that will benefit us," said a soft spoken Cheryl Harrington, a student at the Washington Street Academy, an alternative program for students who have dropped out or are likely to drop out of school.
Lockridge stopped the meeting at one point to defend the board members. "There are some board members who sat here for two years with no salary . . . There are board members who have not worked [at other jobs] in years, who could get better jobs but who put in 18 and 19 hours a day for the board."
After the meeting, Lockridge, who represents the area where many of those who complained reside, said, "At times I get frustrated [by the community's criticism]. But I understand what they're saying. You would expect that they would view the people in control of the system that way."
Yesterday's meeting was called by Lockridge, chairman of the board's finance committee, to hear public views on the budget crisis. Three similar meetings are scheduled for later this month