Thursday, June 2, 2016

Update: The Drinkery's license is renewed; it's a good day for the city

Update: Today (June 2), the Baltimore Liquor Board reversed their decision to take away The Drinkery's liquor license. The reversal occurred because one of the most vocal protesters of The Drinkery, Jason Curtis, holds a liquor license at Hotel Indigo, and it's against the rules for liquor board protests to be made by other (competing) liquor license holders.

As you can guess from my other entry, I'm very happy about the reversal, and hope that the smatterings of protests I read on Facebook and Twitter helped contribute to it, although it also could simply have been a clear rule violation. The targeting by largely white neighborhood members of the gay bar whose clientele is largely African American always had the stench of racism and gentrification-feuled scapegoating on it, and, when combined with last year's closing of The Hippo, it felt like one more nail in the coffin of Mount Vernon's "gayborhood." And it was sad to me on a personal level, because I liked The Drinkery, in my experience it easily was the friendliest and most laid-back gay bar in the Baltimore.

I do think The Drinkery's 87-year old owner Fred Allen probably should have been more responsive, perhaps hire a door man, though. In a perfect world, Allen will sell The Drinkery in the next year or two to an active and receptive owner, one who will usher this cool little bar to its 50th and 60th anniversaries, because I do think that this license renewal controversy could be an annual event. His own odious letter to a protesting neighbor, threatening to sell the bar to a "black" owner who wanted to open a strip club, was especially repugnant. Perhaps the decision would have been overturned even without the Curtis conflict of interest, but perhaps not -- and this went further than it should have.

I'm pleased, however, that Baltimore doesn't have the black eye of having a bunch of mostly white neighbors organizing to close down the most prominent black gay bar in the city. Anyone who has ever been through Federal Hill's Cross Street, Canton Square, or Fells Point at around midnight or 1 a.m. know about the crowds of mostly white people loudly carousing in the streets; that this is allowed, and the overblown charges against The Drinkery (again, no arrest in its 40-year history, only 3 unsubstantiated noise complaints) almost resulted in its demise, smacks of white privilege. Ultimately, this feels like a victory against racist practices by city government, and I hope The Drinkery's ownership makes a few changes to make sure this doesn't happen again.

Now, with that being said, who's up for celebratory drinks?

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Sad and Racist Demise of The Drinkery

Earlier this week, the Baltimore Liquor Board voted 2-1 to revoke the liquor license of The Drinkery, based upon a petition signed by 35 people and unverified testimony of unruliness outside the establishment.

I think it's racist BS, although The Drinkery (and its problematic owner) didn't seem to help itself as much as it should have.

The Drinkery has been on Read Street in Baltimore -- in the "gayborhood" part of the city, near the just-departed The Hippo (the owner retired and sold to a CVS last year) and Grand Central -- since 1972.

I loved The Drinkery. I haven't been back very much in the last couple of years, but, when I was first navigating the LBGTQ bars in the city, it was easily the one that felt most welcoming. Old-fashioned and friendly -- an online review compared it to the TV show Cheers, which I agree with, with its rectangular bar and community vibe -- its drinks were cheap and strong, while the karaoke in the back room was as amusing as it was diverse.

I have such memories from The Drinkery. My roommate and I went there the Thursday night in June of 2013 that I put my dog of 14 years asleep, and it was the perfect place to shed some tears and laugh. I've met friends there, never having to worry about looking stylish; I've spent birthdays there, or just went in there solo to enjoy a drink in its friendly confines.

The Drinkery is admittedly a hole in the wall, but with all the character that that term conveys.

To hear some of the testimony about unruliness of the crowds was confusing, since it was never what I witnessed in my time going there, until I read between the lines: there is no substantiation of the allegations. Never has there been an arrest on the premises. There have been three 311 complaints in its 44-year existence, and none substantiated.

These numbers substantiate what I've witnessed going to The Drinkery; never have I seen a fight, never have I seen a conflict, never have I seen drug use. These are trumped-up charged with no verification.

The only proof they have is testimony of neighbors who say that patrons of the bar are disorderly and disruptive, that they loiter and litter, that they engage in violent altercations inside the establishment that spill out into the surrounding neighborhood (note: there is no proof of this at all), and that drug activity occurs within and around the establishment (something else with absolutely no proof).

It's pretty unbelievable to me that a liquor license can be taken away with so little proof, with only testimony of neighbors, in a gentrifying neighborhood, that clearly don't like the bar.

But, then again, it's not. You see, The Drinkery is the most prominent predominantly Black Gay bar in the city. The neighborhood is steadily becoming more and more gentrified. And the white people that live around it probably didn't want this Black Gay bar that gets a little loud at closing time, but has been there more than 40 years, to remain. I'm not sure if it was only white people complaining, but the media reports show this. And it wouldn't surprise me at all that all, or most, of the complainants were white.

Anyone who thinks that race didn't play a role in the complaints and even the decision needs a reality check.

Very little of the media reporting mentions the race of the clientele of the establishment. Look at this bad Baltimore Sun article which ignores both the race and history of the bar.

Is The Drinkery blame free? Absolutely not. It seems the 87-year old white owner of the bar, Fred Allen, has some problematic views on race himself. See the letter below. Why mention threateningly to a white neighbor that he's considering selling to a black strip club owner, in a "I hope you're happy now" sort of way?

Indeed, one of the Liquor Board members cited Allen's "contempt... toward the community" as a reason for his vote to revoke the liquor license. If he had handled this better, I think The Drinkery would probably still be open.

But, while Allen's letter is gross, I think it's worse to shut down an institution, especially a gay black institution with more than 40 years of history at this site, without proof of the behavior that the complainants petitioned. I wish the Liquor Board had given The Drinkery a 3- or 6-month time period in order to either investigate the allegations or allow the establishment to hire security to handle these alleged problems. It's frustrating when elected and appointed leaders cast aside a whole 44 years of history with so little investigation, and the most prominent black gay bar in the city is shut down -- especially less than a year after The Hippo, which had a similar 40-year run, shuts down.

The gayborhood is gentrifying and dying, with only Grand Central remaining. Mainstream and chain developments are cropping up throughout and near the area. Even Pride 2016 seemed to be in jeopardy earlier this year. Doughterty's, an alternative bar (not a gay bar, but definitely gay-friendly) just a block or two from The Drinkery, also just closed down. All these off-the-radar places giving way to gentrification.

Decisions like this show us how the mainstream can muzzle alternative communities and subcultures when they don't fall in line. Rumors abound about big developers being behind the harassment of the establishment over the last few years.

The Drinkery will appeal the decision, and I hope they're successful. I hope people are paying attention.

If another owner comes in, I hope the replacement will have the same gritty non-mainstream appeal.

Longing for the Days of Paper Scantrons

Hat tip to my colleague who posted similar comments on Facebook, because non-teaching friends might not know the extreme impact that testing -- with technology -- has on schools.

If you didn't know, PARCC testing on computer completely takes over a school.

Our school's small amount of computers were taken up every day from April 20th until May 17th. Then, on May 23rd, more testing (this time, the HSA) will begin taking over the technology.

Every day, students grouped by subject areas are taken into the computer labs for testing. Technology classes are moved to different areas. Teachers who want to sign out a computer lab for, say, research purposes cannot: the technology is devoted to testing.

And therein lies a huge problem with the current testing model: the IT has not caught up with the testing needs. This is a problem that was predicted back in 2014, but the O'Malley administration was assured that the challenge was the test, not the IT.

This isn't true.

Back in the days of paper tested HSA, the interruption was one week, in the mornings. Kids were tested and that was it.

Now, it's an interruption that takes over a school's limited technology resources for two months.

Testing on computer also doesn't help the students build the stamina for long paper tests such as the SAT, ACT, AP, and IB tests.

It's all unconscionable.

So whenever you hear about the Common Core or PARCC testing, or hear a politician or educational advocates who don't work in a school say that the testing isn't extreme, know this: it is, and it is tragic.

Friday, May 20, 2016

BTU Presidential Candidate Mooney Narrowly Defeated, but Reasons for Optimism Abound

The BTU Election is over, and out of roughly 6800 union members, Marietta English beat Kimberly Mooney 694-512.

This was the first serious challenge to Ms. English, who has been BTU President for 16 years, in several election cycles.

First off, the turnout: it's too bad that only 1/6th of our union decided to vote, but it's not totally surprising. When teachers voted to renew the contact, it was approved 540-480, a comparable number. Feelings of powerlessness plus difficulties of voting during a busy school day lead to low turnout.

That's disappointing, but it's not surprising. As aforementioned, the inconvenience is real. My day yesterday was intense: I taught from 7:50-9:30; chaperoned a field trip from 9:30-2:30; changed and handed out Orioles tickets from 2:30-3:00; participated in a student activity from 3:00-4:00; and had to use the window between 4:30 and 5:30 to vote and let my dog out before I returned to school to help take 25 students down to the Orioles game. I got home at 11:30 pm after seeing the last three kids home.

I was able to vote because I made it a priority and I don't have kids of my own, but imagine if I had to pick up children from school or childcare, or head to a doctor appointment -- it would have been impossible.

Teaching is like this. It runs in fits and starts. Some teachers were able to run over to a voting site during a planning period or after school. Others had to work through. I know there are teachers who just couldn't get to a voting site because they had teaching or family priorities and couldn't take the time away from them. That is the reality.

My colleague had a field trip in DC on the day of the election. She was required to submit a request three weeks previous for an absentee ballot. However, she didn't know the students were going to so well in debate at that point and didn't know she'd be in DC. My colleague has no opportunity to vote.

There have been movements to change the voting so that is online, but the BTU hasn't shown interest in pursuing this.

Secondly, I do think there is a sense of powerlessness amongst union members, and powerlessness means teachers don't vote. I don't think teachers feel like they have much of a voice in their profession, and not voting on their union is a symptom of that, as well as a cause. The first time I felt this was back in around 2008, when I voted for a slate led in part by Baltimore educational advocate Jay Gillen; I was excited about this campaign, but was surprised by how many votes that slate was defeated by; it made me feel a bit defeated as well and made me realize how entrenched the English slate is. Later, when Baltimore teachers rejected the new contract in 2011, the union brought in national union members from around the country to convince us over a series of months in meetings that didn't prove to be very honest. The re-vote narrowly passed (full disclosure: I voted for it at this point, and have benefited from it, but don't think it's enacted fairly so voted against its renewal in 2014). For this renewal, contract language about groups and individuals not being able to use system e-mail while the BTU is allowed to, as well as fishy union voting practices during this election, make the feeling of entrenchment even more uncomfortable.

In discussions with my colleagues and peers, I don't know of anyone ho voted for Marietta English. She clearly has enough support for a win, but the electorate is very much divided.

I give Ms. Mooney real credit: she launched her campaign only three months ago, but was able to gain enough support to really make this a very close race. I regret waiting so long to begin drumming up support however I could.

There are a number of things I'm unhappy about with the current union leadership: the lack of transparency about what happens to the BTU's approximate $8 million budget; the lack of communication in general and especially about the issues that matter most to me and my students -- class size, class load, incessant testing that interrupts instruction.

But I'm optimistic after the closeness of this election that more union members are engaged (including myself) and ready to move forward to put out a longer, more developed campaign for change in 2019. I also know about trips by some union members (not leadership) to Chicago to learn about how the agency the teachers are using in that district to bring about change can be brought to Baltimore. All of this makes me excited and optimistic.

I'm quoted in this article about the results.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Vote Mooney for BTU President

I come from a union family and a union state, but have always been disappointed in the Baltimore Teachers Union. Looking through this blog archives, you'll note that I've been disappointed with the union's handling of our contract and its scare tactics during the negotiations.

Ironically, the BTU contract has helped me earn a lot of money as a teacher. However, what I really want is a contract that makes my students' and my life better. This year, I taught an astonishing ~160 students at once, every day. I don't have common planning time with my course team. My lunch is from 12:44-1:05 most days, barely enough time to go to the bathroom, then to wait in line for the microwave and eat. The grind is real.

Of course, no one said that teaching should be easy. It's a tough and wonderful job that constantly inspires and challenges me. I wouldn't trade it for the world. But would I like better working conditions? Absolutely. Would I like my contract negotiations to include class load and class size language? Absolutely. Do I want my union to help fend off the onslaught of standardized tests as best they can? Yes. Most importantly, would the kids be better off with these focuses? Of course they would. Do I feel like my union represents my concerns? That answer should be clear.

Maybe it's a communication problem. But the BTU website is terrible and this article by Sun Education reporter is typical: BTU President Marietta English didn't respond to calls for comment.

I and every other teacher in the district spends around $1200 a year on my union dues, but there is very little transparency in what happens with that money.

In my 15 years in BCPSS, the BTU has felt impenetrable.

It's time for a change. Just as in our mayoral election and our new city council, the time is ripe. Marietta English has been BTU President for 16 years.

On Wednesday, please vote Kimberly Mooney (an 11-year Baltimore teaching vet) for BTU President. She's committed to transparency, and working to fix many of the problems that I see with the current union.

Read about her platform below, and please vote. The list of polling places is here.

Restore transparency and democracy to the Union by:
  • Conducting frequent online surveys to gauge members’ concerns, publicizing the Union’s “asks” during negotiations so that everyone knows what’s on the table, and communicating with members throughout my entire term
  • Increasing the frequency of General Membership meetings to at least four annually
  • Setting aside time on every BTU Building Rep. meeting agenda to allow Reps to express concerns
Push back against district and state policies that hurt teachers and students, such as requiring excessive standardized testing by:
  • Publicly decrying policies that endanger our schools via news media
  • Lobbying legislators on behalf of our Union and organizing the membership to come together and make decisions about education, our area of expertise, rather than allowing lawmakers to do this without our input
Fix the broken teacher evaluation system by:
  • Advocating for a contract that protects teachers from being punished for working in difficult schools
  • Demanding fair observation rubrics and a contract that outlines what effectiveness looks like for staff that play various roles (counselor, etc.)
Attract and retain great educators by:
  • Blocking attempts to cut health insurance benefits and pay
  • Restoring the ability to receive pay increases for furthering one’s education
  • Insisting that measures to make schools safer are incorporated into the new contract, such as updates to the Code of Conduct

Sunday, May 15, 2016

What to Read in Baltimore This Week

I've got a few drafts going, but please read these important pieces this week in the mean time:

The New Redlining
Housing Policy Watch unpacks the numbers about the Port Covington development numbers. Baltimore City's median income is $41,000, while the metro Baltimore area's median income is $86,700. Even though the development will be in Baltimore City, the numbers used to create affordable housing are dictating by the area median income, not the city median income. Therefore, the development will create more cycles of poverty, which Housing Policy Watch argues is the new redlining, the discriminatory housing policy of the first 60 years of the 20th century that helped create some of the generations of poverty we still see today, that have helped create such a divided Baltimore. The blog post outlines it well, and should be widely read.

Hogan and Franchot take an 'astonishing' step
The Baltimore Sun editorial team outlines my feelings about Larry Hogan and Peter Franchot's decision to hold back $10 million in Baltimore County Public Schools funding and $5 million in Baltimore City Public Schools funding in order to force both school systems to install window air-conditioning units. As a teacher who has taught in 90 degree classrooms and started a Donors Choose in order to get two window units, I understand the need for air conditioning. But in my own classroom, I have had to run extension cords through my room to get the a/c units to work because the building is not wired for them. They often trip the circuit, in my classroom as well as my colleagues'. I know that in my classroom, the fix is temporary. One of my frustrations with BCPSS projects is that most construction fixes I have witnessed are indeed temporary. I have witnessed the system continue to band-aid the problems with quick fixes; the heating situation at our school has been an issue since I started 15 years ago, because they never actually fix it, they just band-aid it. For Hogan and Franchot to force the band-aid solution rather than invest in central air-conditioning for buildings is an exercise in financial stupidity that will hurt kids because of other projects that will be abandoned. Franchot is especially an embarrassment, after his foolish campaign to force schools to open after Labor Day and now this, he is no friend of education and he is an embarrassment to the Democratic party. With Hogan, it's more expected that I would not be aligned with him, but I thought Republicans were supposed to be financially sound? Why is he forcing schools into this band-aid solution rather than investing in true overhaul? Talk about being Penny Smart but Dollar Dumb.

Recognizing Shylock's Humanity in The Merchant of Venice
My friend and colleague Amber Phelps writes movingly about how teaching The Merchant of Venice using the Folger Shakespeare Library's resources changed after the Baltimore Uprising last year. Of an image, found in the Folger's Digital Library LUNA: "The other LUNA images that positioned Shylock as a merciless monster felt so limited in attempting to capture the scope of that character and his pain.  We saw this painting as an image capturing the consequences of when we fail to recognize each other’s humanity. As the media shone an unforgiving light on Baltimore, my students recognized Freddie Gray and Shylock were the same in this moment. Both were convicted before the trial ever began. It was understood by everyone that neither Freddie Gray nor Shylock would receive unbiased justice, but it was the status quo’s dehumanizing failure to recognize The Other’s actual right to exist that inspires outrage." I love that the students of Baltimore City are getting such conscious teaching, and that Shakespeare is -- as it always has -- helped shine light on our society, even centuries after publication.

Bathroom bills are about fear, not restrooms
Another friend and colleague, Tonya Luster, writes insightfully and emotionally about the unisex bathroom issue. I love the structure of the essay -- its introduction (I attended one of the weddings she writes about, but honestly didn't notice if the bathrooms were unisex or not, which made me think about my own role in all of this) and especially its ending, which is perfect. Read this if you want a measured take on the issue that the right has created in order to attempt a wedge issue.

Baltimore City Power Rankings: Green party, West Family, BCPS, and more
I once attended a talk that compared Tyrone West's sister, Tawanda Jones, to Harriet Tubman for our time. Her tireless, weekly protests of her brother's death at the hands of police a couple of years ago -- she calls them "West Wednesday" -- are finally giving this tragedy the attention it deserves. Joshua Harris, the very strong Green Party candidate, is given a writeup (hopefully he offers Pugh a real challenge), and the Baltimore City Public School Board is criticized for its non-transparent, and even dishonest, search for a new CEO. All spot-on, except: doesn't City Paper know that BCPS stands for Baltimore COUNTY public schools, and BCPSS stands for Baltimore CITY Public School System?

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

May Shocker: Dr. Thornton is Out and Dr. Santelises is In as BaltimoreSchools CEO

Dr. Thornton was the 6th CEO I worked under in my 15 years in the BCPSS, after Dr. Carmen Russo (2000-2004), Dr. Bonnie Copeland (2004-2006), Dr. Charlene Cooper (interim, 2006-2007), Dr. Andres Alonso (2007-2013), Tisha Edwards (interim, 2013-2014), and now Dr. Gregory Thornton (2014-2016). 

At the teacher level, I didn't feel much impact from Dr. Thornton's tenure, as I felt like I spent the two years waiting for what he was going to do. Of course I read and heard reports about people being unhappy with some aspects of his tenure, but I don't know much beyond that. I never met him; I never attended (or heard about) any sort of kickoff event to hear his vision for the district, never saw him visit my school. From the beginning, it felt like a holding pattern that never really ended.

My (technically former... he just finished his IB exam for my course today) student has much more specific and articulate thoughts about Dr. Thornton's tenure here.
Sign on frmr CEO Dr. Alonso's door today (he posted to Facebook).

I am pretty excited about his replacement, however. As I wrote about in February 2014, I think Dr. Sonja Santelises should have been considered initially to replace Dr. Alonso. Reflecting now, she probably should have been hired (even then, I wondered how she was passed up). In my interactions with her while she was the Chief Academic Officer of BCPSS, Dr. Santelises displayed intelligence and boldness, with high expectations of students and adults. I know I won't agree with all of her decisions, but I feel confident, even a little bit excited, about what she might bring to the table as the new CEO. The teachers that I work with who know and remember her like and respect her. That's huge. 

This is a TED talk of hers that I enjoy:

The move is a bold, strong move by the school board. By hiring someone from Dr. Alonso's administration, it seems the school board may want to go back in that direction.  I think Dr. Santelises could be a transformative leader, and I'm cautiously optimistic about what she might bring to the students of BCPSS.