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The Nose

Another Third Grader for O'Malley

School Bulletin Board Proclaims Student Support for Mayor's Candidacy

Frank Klein

Posted 10/11/2006

It was primary election day and the Nose was out doing our civic duty, casting our vote at North Baltimore's Govans Elementary School. After playing with the brand-new computerized voting machine, the Nose headed to the rest room. A woman seated at a desk in the principal's office directed us down the hall to the left and told us we'd find the bathrooms past the room where the polls were set up on the left-hand side. The Nose followed her instructions to the letter.

And then we saw it, looming over the hallway. It was a long banner made out of Ravens' purple paper, stretched from the top of the students' lockers to the ceiling and between two classroom doors. At the top, bright yellow capitalized letters screamed out WHY WE WANT MARTIN O'MALLEY TO BE OUR GOVERNOR. Underneath the lettering were short essays from 16 third-graders talking about why they thought Democratic Mayor O'Malley would be a better governor than Republican incumbent Robert Ehrlich.

The Nose was stunned to see, in a city public school, a class project wind up as a partisan billboard--a public school being used as a polling place, to boot.

When we returned from the bathroom, we stopped back at the principal's office and asked what the story was. And, from that second, the Baltimore City Public School System started a little game that focused on why the Nose had been back in that hallway, looking at the banner, instead of focusing on the real issue--why the banner was there to begin with.

"You cannot come in scrutinizing our building," the woman declared. When the Nose pulled out a reporter's notebook the woman said we had no business looking at the display. The Nose insisted on talking to the principal, and the woman dialed a phone number and explained the situation to whomever had picked up. Then she handed over the phone. "You cannot write anything unless you talk to our public relations lady," the woman on the other end of the line exclaimed.

A couple of days later, the Nose and a City Paper photographer met up with Govans Elementary Principal Linda Taylor and city schools spokeswoman Vanessa Pyatt back in the hallway, in front of the banner. Taylor explained that the third-grade teacher had students research the governor's race. The children also wrote short essays explaining why they supported the candidate of their choice, and made bar charts showing how many students voted for each candidate.

All 16 of the students who participated in the four-day project voted for O'Malley. Taylor praised the teacher for "successfully engaging kids in an assignment," and said that all of the students' essays and charts were posted on the wall of the school's main hallway.

While the Nose acknowledged the assignment had some value, we questioned why the banner read WHY WE WANT MARTIN O'MALLEY TO BE OUR GOVERNOR Didn't it look a bit like indoctrination? Why didn't the banner simply say something like who we want for governor, and then present the children's reasoning in their essays?

Both Taylor and Pyatt disagreed with the premise of our question. And James Smith, the school system's Area 2 academic officer (sort of an assistant school superintendent), told us emphatically that the project had that title because the students chose it themselves.

Although Pyatt promised to give copies of the essays to City Paper, she only left one essay at North Avenue for us to read. That student emphasized that O'Malley would make schools safer for children. By blowing up one of the photos taken at the school, we also were able to read the content of another essay, which noted the safety issue, and then listed some other issues. "Martin will also build new schools and reduce class size," he wrote.

We wanted to speak to the school system's new chief executive officer, Charlene Cooper Boston, about how the project was presented to the rest of Govans Elementary and whether it was appropriate. Pyatt said that Edie House, the head of public relations for the school system, "has declined your request" to speak to Boston. Why, we wanted to know? Pyatt said this story had taken long enough already.

We also tried to get the students' essays and a Boston interview through House. She did not return our calls for nearly two weeks. When she finally did, she said the school system had bent over backward to help us, that we would not be getting any more essays because the school's legal advisers said they were confidential parts of each child's school records, and that we should just write the story and "move on."

House also declined to let us interview CEO Boston. And we have just one question at this point. If there was nothing political about this project, then why did the school system refuse to cooperate and give us the information we requested?

The Nose attempted to reach O'Malley for comment on this story, but he also did not return the calls.

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