ANNAPOLIS – Five lobbyists huddled in the hallway of the Lowe House Office Building early Thursday morning, plotted strategy and tried not to giggle.
“OK,” said Ashley Martinez, an advocate for school reform. “Let’s go stand outside the elevators, and if any special people come out, we’ll grab `em.”
The other four nodded furiously, ponytails bouncing. Then the whole bunch collapsed into squeals.
In the final days of the battle over education dollars, the smallest voices came to the capital on their spring break this week and asked, with excruciating politeness, to be heard.
“Excuse me,” said 10-year-old Ashley as one of the targeted “special people” – Prince George’s Delegation Chairman Rushern L. Baker III – stepped off the elevator. “We need some money for our schools.”
Baker, a tough man to see without an appointment, flashed the same grin he gives grown-up constituents and high-priced professionals and bent down to listen.
But adolescent nerves set in, and the words got stuck. The girls nudged each other, but could not speak.
Democracy is tougher in real life than on the Schoolhouse Rock video they often show in schools. Especially when you have no cell phone, no Palm Pilot and so little time off from the seventh grade.
And unlike the legions of undersized advocates that arrive each session on yellow buses to push for state cookies or other trifling legislation, these girls sought a loftier prize.
“Eighty million bucks,” Ashley said.
Baker would love to find that kind of money, he told the girls and their parents. His own children – he calls them Yummy, Cookies and Snack – go to public school too.
The grown-up members of the grassroots group Stand for Children brought the dozen or so children to Annapolis to ask lawmakers to fund a reform plan giving schools an extra $1.1 billion over five years.
The students did not know the details of the strained state budget. They didn’t know school reform depends on clearing political roadblocks pitting poor counties against affluent ones. Or that finding new money depends on passing a controversial cigarette tax. Or that other groups want money too, for mental health, the environment and other fine causes.
But they did know, as intimately and expertly as anyone, that their schools need more money. They also knew that citizens with a problem are supposed to talk to their elected representatives.
So what if they can’t yet vote.
The pack of girls chased Delegate Anthony Brown, D-Prince George’s, like he was a Backstreet Boy, down the hall and into his office. No appointment, no problem.
“Did they just walk on in there?” one staff member whispered.
“Let them go,” said another. “They are so cute.”
The girls stood shoulder-to-shoulder and stared at Brown across a massive conference table.
“We are trying to get funding for our schools,” said Ashley, who was grudgingly emerging as the group’s leader.
“Which schools?” Brown said.
“All the schools,” said Ashley, a fifth-grader at Beltsville Academic Center.
They told him they needed buses so they could get home after activities and asked for playground equipment to replace rusty and broken swings. They said their classes were too big.
They proposed classes of 15 students. Brown shook his head and countered, “How does 25 sound?”
The girls nodded, and walked out smiling with satisfaction.
“That was our best one,” Ashley said. Then she broke into a run. The kids and their parents had an appointment to keep – with a senator.
In all, parents spoke to a half dozen lawmakers and students cornered a half dozen more.
One of the Anne Arundel delegates gave them pencils.
When the lawmakers convened their morning session, the group watched the House of Delegates from the balcony. The Prince George’s delegates waved at them from the floor.
Government operates a little bit like a classroom, they observed. Bells ring when it’s time to start (although most lawmakers were tardy), everyone said the Pledge of Allegiance (but then there was a prayer) and the House Speaker (he’s like the teacher) took attendance.
Discipline, they noted, appeared to be lacking.
“Are they supposed to listening to what he is saying?” said Ashley, as House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, asked for amendments to bills.
“Are they supposed to be quiet?” said Jennifer Sowers, 13, a seventh- grader at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Beltsville. “They are not setting a very good example.”
“Why do they all have telephones?” several asked simultaneously, as lawmakers chatted, plucked at laptops and generally ignored the mundane procedural portion of the session.
“We don’t have phones,” said Diane Feuillet, 13, a student at private Sandy Spring Friends School. “They should give the schools money for that.”
When Delegate Joan B. Pitkin, D-Prince George’s, introduced the group, 137 lawmakers stood and cheered. The students waved, except for the littlest one, 4- year-old Daryl Franklin, who was asleep.
When it was over – after they had marveled at the governor’s mansion and snickered at the sculpted golden hairdo of Sen. Ida G. Ruben, D-Montgomery – they weren’t entirely sure if they had made a mark on Annapolis, but Annapolis had made a mark on them.
Danyetta Coles, 13, had been speechless all day. But she did have something to tell the lawmakers.
“I was scared of them,” said Coles, an eighth-grader at MacArthur Middle School in Fort Meade. “But we need some computers, an air conditioner and some bathrooms and some toilet paper in them.”