By Erica L. Green and Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun
6:06 PM EDT, August 7, 2011
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.
"Our fear is that a $16 million allocation every year isn't going to meet the need," said Sue Fothergill, Coleman's co-chair at the Baltimore Education Coalition.
The group wants funding levels comparable to those of school systems such as Baltimore County, which has allocated more than $100 million to capital improvements in four of the past five years.
"This isn't a matter of doing something that has not been done before," Fothergill said. "It's a matter of looking around and saying, 'How can we do that in Balitmore?'"
Clerk of Court Frank M. Conaway Sr. wants more scrutiny of facilities contracts, particularly in reining in contractors who he says might be taking advantage of the system.
Conaway said he would also look to developers and others who have benefited from tax breaks in the city.
"If we give them tax breaks, they can help us out with schools," Conaway said.
Joseph T. "Jody" Landers, until recently executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, said that "as important as the facilities are, [they] are not the biggest issue for the school system right now.
"How many incidents have there been where students were injured because of faulty facilities?" he asks. "I hear more concerns about bullying."
Still, Landers says, the city should be consolidating and closing "any schools that are so far gone that it's not worth investing the money in them."
The former city councilman says the city could convert other available space in the city into classrooms, as a cheaper alternative to building new schools. He said his initial approach to allocating slots revenue would be to divide it equally between property taxes and school construction.
All of the candidates back greater school funding.
"It's always intrigued me how we've allowed the 1 percent here and there from the city, then you hear we're going to be hiring police, but letting go of teachers," said Dennis Moulden, former president of the district's parent advisory group, who once rallied state lawmakers for more money for city schools. "For years we have marched for adequate funding, and it got to a point where I said, 'I'm not marching in Annapolis anymore until we march downtown.'"
The city under Rawlings-Blake has kept funding at "maintenance of effort" levels — money that local governments are required to give its school systems under state law — even as other jurisdictions have sought relief from the responsibility.
"I don't think there's ever a year that we don't want to increase our maintenance of effort," Rawlings-Blake said. "The fact that … we kept a commitment to our kids is significant."
However, school funding has not increased with enrollment. Per-pupil spending by the city has remained flat for the past three years at about $2,500 per student.
The city has also cut back in the last two years on additional funding it provided for services such as student bus passes. The city's 50 percent share for crossing guards is still being negotiated.
Rawlings-Blake threatened to cut funding to 13 school-based health centers last year, but restored the money after a public outcry.
Landers and Pugh said they would look to increase spending beyond maintenance-of-effort levels by cutting back on administrative costs in the city budget.
Conaway said he believes the city should shoulder more of the responsibility for the schools. It now provides 22 percent of the system's $1.3 billion budget. The state is the largest source of funding for the system.
"If we can find money to build a $304 million hotel, we can find money for the schools," Conaway said.
City schools will come to a crossroads this year, as the system looks to rebound from the first academic decline in years and a flurry of cheating scandals.
Jessica Shiller, a former education policy director for Advocates for Children and Youth, a local advocacy group, acknowledges the limits on mayoral influence in the Baltimore schools. But failing to use the bully pulpit to support education, she said, "is kind of a waste."
"The national conversation is about bringing back the schools, and we haven't heard a clear vision from the mayor about how to do that in Baltimore," Shiller said. "We're not going to be able to have a robust school system with a mayor who's not really sure what to do with it."
The centerpiece of Rolley's education platform is a proposal to return the school system to mayoral control.
In 1997, then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke turned control of the school system over to a city-state partnership, which resulted in a $254 million boost in state aid over three years.
But Rolley said reverting to such a system would increase local accountability.
Rolley also proposes a targeted voucher program, a controversial system that provides public subsidies to attend private schools. He proposes to close the five worst-performing middle schools and offer the students transfers to other public schools or $10,000 vouchers, contingent on passing grades, to attend private schools.
His plan, he says, is inspired by the opportunity he received to escape his failing high school in New Jersey to attend more rigorous programs.
"We have the opportunity to elect a mayor who understands in his heart the fundamental role education can play when we have someone coming from a dysfunctional background," Rolley said.
Landers said "rebuilding morale in the system is as important as addressing these other issues."
He said he would encourage a series of forums with schools chief Andrés Alonso and school communities.
Rawlings-Blake has remained a staunch supporter of the city school system and Alonso, and said she was "pleased" with the progress that's been made.
She urged residents to look at the recent slide in test scores and the cheating scandal as aberrations in an otherwise improving system.
"I'm not accepting that this dip in test scores this year is a forecast of what's to come," she said. "Our kids have come a long way.
"It's OK to say that we want to do better, without minimizing the progress that's been made."
Where they stand
Improving school facilities:
•Rawlings-Blake's plan to fund school facility improvements has been delayed six months; she says it will be released in the next few weeks. She would designate 10 percent of slots money to school construction.
•Rolley would look to public-private partnerships to help fund improvements of 50 schools in the next decade; would dedicate almost all slots revenue to school construction.
•Pugh would press the business and philanthropic community to partner in renovating schools, as was done in her partnership with Maryland Institute College of Art President Fred Lazarus for a design school the two will open this fall.
•Landers would look to close and consolidate schools and programs; convert large spaces, like vacant shopping centers, into classrooms.
•Conaway would look to the private sector to help with funding, specifically developers who have received tax breaks from the city. He also wants more scrutiny of city schools facility contractors, to ensure they are providing honest pricing.
Increased funding for city schools:
•Rawlings-Blake emphasized the city has maintained its "maintenance of effort" to the school system, even with a large budget deficit. .
•Rolley said the state needs to continue its full funding of city schools under the Thornton formula; says answer is not to keep putting money in the schools, but ensuring stewardship of the money already in the system.
•Pugh would look for more money for city schools as she overhauls the city's budget to cut administrative costs.
•Landers would also look for more money to support the school system by cutting city administrative costs.
•Conaway said that if the city can find $304 million for a hotel, it can find more money for schools.
Supporting city's academics:
•Rawlings-Blake would continue supporting Teach for America, city schools CEO Andrés Alonso and the efforts of the school system, such as the new teachers union contract.
•Rolley would return the system to mayoral control, and champion a voucher program for students zoned for the city's five worst-performing middle schools.
•Pugh would be a full partner with the school system, and start by opening a dialogue about what tools the system needs to prevent cheating and declining test scores.
•Landers said that morale is biggest challenge in city schools right now and would propose that Alonso have a forum to hear from teachers and the community who are frustrated; would help the system to restore public trust in the wake of cheating scandals and academic backslide.
•Conaway would promote more vocational programs in the city's schools, to teach students academic and job skills.
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