One on One is a weekly feature offering excerpts of interviews conducted by The Evening Sun with newsworthy business leaders. Robert Keller is president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a privately-funded economic development organization. The GBC recently released a report entitled, "The Strength of Maryland Depends on the State of Baltimore."
Q. Why is this economic report by the Greater Baltimore Committee important and how will its recommendations benefit Baltimore City and the surrounding counties?
A.I think the business community of Baltimore City has taken a really courageous and strong stand. It's not something that one would ordinarily expect the business community to do, but what it really reflects is that the Greater Baltimore Committee understands that unless the city is healthy, and carries its weight, and has an independence and an interdependence, then the entire region and, in fact, the entire state begins to collapse.
Q. Can you outline the major points of the report?
A. The major points are essentially that there does have to be a major interdependence among the jurisdictions in the region. And what that means is that you need to work together in this case to make sure that Baltimore City is viable and strong and we ought to go at that in two different ways. One, we need a very strong public education system . . . That strong education system has to be fully accountable and adequately funded. Second is that to become a fully contributing member to the economic life of this community, we have to do some things to strengthen city government and the way the city operates . . . The property tax, which is way too high -- more than double than any of the surrounding counties -- needs to be cut dramatically. And, there needs to be an adequate supply of funds in the city to be able to have the government function in an effective, efficient manner.
Q. How much money will it take to improve the city schools?
A. Well, the estimates vary. And I think that an adequate number is simply to bring the city schools up to the level of Baltimore County schools of per pupil spending [and that] would require about $150 million. Should we have that as our articulated goal to be done in a relatively short amount of time? We'd better have. We can't afford to have another generation of our children getting an inadequate education.
Q. In the report, the GBC says that proposals for improving educational levels in the city are radical. Are they really?
A. Oh, yes. Are there some that could be more radical? Certainly. What we're saying is that far more autonomy -- root autonomy -- needs to be invested in the school building, school officials and the teachers. We have to stop putting our emphasis on the meaningless reorganization of the deck chairs in the bureaucracy. And if, as the Sondheim Commission said, that doesn't work, then the state ought to be given the option to take over and fund individual schools. [The Sondheim report called for effectiveness of school systems across the state to be judged according to student test scores, attendance, promotion and the number of students who drop out.]
Q. In the GBC report, the committee says that the strength of Maryland depends on the state of Baltimore. Why?
A. Whatever is happening, the reality is that Baltimore remains . . . will always remain, the cultural, financial and economic center of this state. And so, wither Baltimore, so the state. That means that unless we have a strong Baltimore City, then Baltimore County and Howard County, Montgomery County, and so on and so forth throughout the state, from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore, will suffer dramatically.
Q. Now don't you think that the politicians and residents of the other counties might strongly disagree with that?
A. Well I don't think so. I think particularly the people of this state understand this. I think there are some elected officials who disagree, not very many. There is posturing involved in all this. There is no more critical mass in the state of Maryland than there is in Baltimore City. That doesn't mean that we don't have other sources of strength. Montgomery County is clearly strong. Baltimore County is clearly strong. The Eastern Shore has its own viability, but when you're talking about the heart, where the lifeblood is for the state, there is only one choice for that -- Baltimore City.
Q. There have been many reports by various groups calling for a reduction in the city real estate tax. How will the added voices of the GBC make a difference?