Candidates would spend more on schools

Back more money for construction, students

August 07, 2011|By Erica L. Green and Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

Taikira White chose City College for its nationally renowned choir, but her quests to find a fully functional bathroom in the school could make her a track star by the time she graduates.

Last school year, she found herself running up and down the hallways and staircases of the sprawling building, racing her classmates and the clock to find a toilet that would flush and a sink to wash her hands. Rarely were both an option.

"It's just so tragic," said the 14-year-old, who will be a sophomore in the coming school year. "The toilets stopped working, the sinks stopped working, there's never any soap. … No one should have to go through this."

But students and educators in at least 70 percent of the city's schools are making do in buildings where students are at the mercy of a fluctuating thermometer and the cooperation of a dilapidated, and in many cases hazardous, infrastructure.

"I usually teach with a sweat towel," said Mark Miazga, an English teacher at City. "It's hard to concentrate, and once, last year, I nearly fainted in the middle of class."

After an academic year in which 45 schools closed for a total of 34½ days because of problems ranging from electricity shortages to carbon monoxide leaks, parents and education advocates say the city's decrepit school facilities should be the central issue in this year's mayoral election. But neither Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake nor any of her challengers have produced a dollars-and-cents plan to improve schools.

While the mayor of Baltimore does not run the city schools — the district is managed by the superintendent, overseen by a school board jointly appointed by the mayor and the governor — facilities and school funding are two areas in which the mayor can exert authority.

And the mayor elected in November will face a multibillion-dollar challenge to exercise it. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland reported last year that it would take $2.8 billion to rebuild, repair and renovate the majority of the city's school buildings.

Rawlings-Blake said last fall that she agreed with the number and charged a task force with drafting solutions to finance needed repairs. The report, which Rawlings-Blake had said would be issued in February, has not been released.

Rawlings-Blake blames the delay on changes in the formula used to calculate the state's contribution to the system, on work by the task force to "zero in on the actual cost" of necessary repairs, and the care members are taking to produce a report that will "lead to the outcome we want."

School advocates have criticized Rawlings-Blake's proposal to spend 90 percent of the city revenue from Baltimore's planned casino on a property tax reduction and only 10 percent on school construction.

By law, the city is only able to use its portion of the revenue for these two purposes.

"The fact that 90 percent would go to property taxes, and only 10 percent of that money goes to our kids shows where our priorities are," said Shannen Coleman, co-chair of the Baltimore Education Coalition, which represents several local advocacy groups. "We have been patient with this mayor in waiting for this report, and now we need action."

Rawlings-Blake said she has "consistently" backed using slots revenue to reduce property taxes since she was the City Council president.

"So much attention has been cast on the property tax issues, and in reality, that's not the main reason that people are not staying in the city," said Bishop Douglas Miles, who co-chairs Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development.

"People stay until their children hit school age because our children are being expected to learn and perform in many instances, in unconscionable conditions."

Of the mayor's challengers, former city planning director Otis Rolley has been most vocal on education.

Rawlings-Blake and Rolley both have daughters who attend city elementary schools.

Rolley says slots revenue should go to school construction. The education platform he unveiled two months ago includes plans to build or renovate 50 schools in a decade. He says he would seek the help of developers and businesses, an approach that has been used in Washington and in Greenville, S.C.

Rolley has said he would first ensure that the district's capital improvement budget is being managed properly. He recalled a time during his City Hall tenure when the school system had $40 million of unspent funds.

"While they were crying broke, they weren't effectively managing what they did have," Rolley said.

State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh has also vowed to tap public-private partnerships to build schools. She speaks of the fashion, design and architecture high school she is helping to found. It's funded in part with private money.

The city allocated $16 million to the system's capital budget last year, the lowest amount in the past five years, but helped obtain more state funding for capital improvements this year.

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