A promise is a promise

May 16, 2007

Just about a year ago, Baltimore had a $60 million surplus and Mayor Martin O'Malley stood with City Council President Sheila Dixon and pledged $25 million of it to help build and rebuild some of Baltimore's schools.

Now mayor, Ms. Dixon is singing a different tune, proposing to take $5 million designated for the schools' capital budget and putting it into after-school programs.

There's no question that students need more tutoring, recreation and other activities to enhance their academic experience and to keep them busy after school. But improving school facilities is also a critical need and an important investment - and that's where the surplus funds are supposed to go. Mayor Dixon should honor the promise.

Declining enrollment has forced the school system to close and reorganize schools as part of an overall plan to reduce physical space by 15 percent. After two rounds of closings, school officials were looking ahead to renovating some old schools, building a few new ones and dealing with about $1 billion in basic maintenance, such as fixing heating and air conditioning units. Last year, in deciding on ways to use the surplus to help children, City Hall opted to help with the schools' building plan.

Although the deal was sealed, the money was not transferred immediately to the school system's account. This year, Mayor Dixon has decided to renegotiate the terms of the agreement, setting aside part of the $25 million for after-school programs. Because school officials are not quite ready to break ground on a new school building, City Hall seems to think that the money can be shifted for the time being and restored on the next go-round.

But just as Mayor Dixon has changed the priorities set by her predecessor, there is no guarantee that she will be in City Hall or that some other crisis or priority won't claim similarly dedicated funds during the next budget cycle. And school officials are right to be concerned that while money for the school system's capital budget would be a one-time expense, money for after-school programs could obligate the system to keep those programs going in the future.

Ideally, there would be enough money to modernize schools and provide after-school programs for all the children who want to participate. But when choices must be made, honoring a promise should come first.

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