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Alonso, school board debate politics of school construction plans

BusinessStephanie Rawlings-BlakeSmall BusinessesAndres Alonso

The Baltimore city school board voted Tuesday to pass a resolution that supports the plan proposed by schools CEO Andres Alonso to execute a rapid and massive overhaul of the city's debilitating school facilities by borrowing $1.2 billion--six times more than the school system's current bonding authority, and an amount that far exceeds the $300 milllion plan proposed by the mayor.

The plan is notably different than the one proposed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has remained non-commital since Alonso appeared in Annapolis. In her state of the city address earlier this week, the mayor presented her plan as more realistic and fiscally responsible.

The mayor said she would introduce legislation next week to increase the city's bottle tax from 2 cents to 5 cents in 2013, a source of revenue that is key to her plan to leverage $300 million in bonds to address an estimated $2.8 billion in needed repairs to schools.

But while the majority of the city school board threw their support behind Alonso's proposal--revealed Tuesday night as the School Modernization and Renovation Transformation, or "SMART" strategy--others questioned whether it was wise for the district to support political measures to help reach their goals.

You can read the Powerpoint Presentation given at the school board meeting, here.

David Stone, who is serving his second term on the mayor/governor appointed board, challenged Alonso's assertion that the board needed to push political will in order to get this done.

He argued that like other efforts that have relied on legislation to improve the school system, like establishing the Thornton school funding formula, the school system did not take a position on where the money came from--just that they needed more. 

Stone particularly took issue with the school board publicly supporting a bottle tax proposed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, which will generate some of the revenue the system needs to float bonds. The bottle tax faces stark opposition from small businesses ant the beverage industry.

That's a fight that Stone said he didn't sign up for when applied for the school board.

"It pits small businesses against schools, right off the bat," Stone said. "That's not an argument  that we need to be engaged in. I'm not sure we're in a position to support a tax from City Hall."

Alonso said he didn't believe the school system was "endorsing a particular political action." He also said that while the system doesn't want to meddle in City Hall affairs, city leaders freely weigh in on the school system's decisions when they feel the need.

"If we are asking for a huge commitment on the part of the city, a commitment that is hard to gather, then we might want to support any effort that's going to get money for the school system," Alonso said.

Stone replied bluntly: "Let the people who were elected fight that battle. I think we should apply some discipline in this discussion."

Alonso, who has the backing of the powerful, city-wide education advocacy group Transform Baltimore, responded with an impassioned speech about how the system had to seize the moment in carrying out the plan, even if it means ruffled feathers.

He said the plan may come at "an uncomfortable price, and many may be out of their comfort zone, but the window is open." He also said the billion-dollar plan, "seeks to remedy what has not been done for 40 years."

He also pointed to other districts that due to political will, have been able to successfully implement this model.

"If it doesn't get done now, we all will have failed," he said. "Our hesitation in some areas is what we'll have to pay for in others."

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