Fears vs. hopes

Downtown: Business community should help support city's planned tourism and finance high school.

March 15, 2002

THE CITY'S PLAN to open a small high school at Charles and Saratoga streets has triggered a veritable civil war within the downtown business community.

On one side are the school system, the board of the Downtown Partnership and David H. Hillman, who owns the Charles Towers complex. They support opening a high school for students interested in finance and tourism careers, using a space that was long occupied by the Johns Hopkins School of Continuing Education.

On the opposing side are such heavy hitters as Peter G. Angelos, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and -- ironically -- a number of leading hotels. They say the location is inappropriate. They also fear the school's students would cause problems that might kill efforts to revitalize the Charles Street corridor.

In the middle is Mayor Martin O'Malley, who is waffling.

"I think a downtown finance academy is a terrific idea," he says. "Exactly where it gets sited is an open question to me."

Earlier this month, the school board approved a 12-year lease with Mr. Hillman's Southern Management Corp. to open the academy in September with about 90 freshmen. The enrollment would eventually reach 350.

But since the lease is still unsigned, an all-out battle rages.

Mr. Hillman, whose company owns 23,000 apartment units in Maryland and the District of Columbia, is confident the college preparatory school would be good for his holdings as well as for downtown. He says doubters are "out of touch."

"If you want kids to go to the business world, it doesn't help if you just say, `Call me when you grow up,'" he argues.

This indeed is the crux of the matter, regardless of whether or not this is going to be the new high school's location. Baltimoreans have to decide whether they want to be guided by their hopes or their fears. They have to choose between forward-looking action and self-defeatist naysaying.

We believe Baltimore has plenty of promising kids who can turn the new high school into a positive addition to downtown.

The tourism and finance academies already exist, at Southwestern and Lake Clifton high schools, respectively. The new downtown location can succeed only if the school system establishes uncompromising standards and a fail-safe day-to-day operation.

But that's not enough. Equally critical is key corporate leaders' open-minded support.

For years, the business community has complained about the school system's failure to produce enough employable graduates. By and large, that's true. But business leaders cannot have it both ways -- first criticize and then turn around to nit-pick efforts to address their complaint.

If ever there were a time for Baltimore's business leaders to put their money where their mouths are, this is it. They should partner with the school system -- providing internships for students, supporting their further education and, ultimately, offering them jobs.

That's the constructive approach -- and the best way to ensure Baltimore's future economic viability.

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