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.