Supporters of a $2.4 billion plan to rebuild Baltimore's crumbling schools made a show of support in Annapolis on Monday night as thousands of people staged a loud, festive rally outside the State House to urge passage of legislation to launch the program.
Teachers, students, parents and others described deplorable conditions in city schools — ranging from disgusting bathrooms and broken windows to stifling classrooms and inadequate computer labs — as they called upon lawmakers to provide the resources to rebuild the state's oldest school buildings.
"We're not asking for charity. We're not asking for a handout," said Yasmene Mumby, co-chairwoman of the Baltimore Education Coalition, which organized the rally. "We're asking to use existing state funds to renovate and reconstruct our school buildings efficiently, effectively and in a smarter way."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the plan's chief architect, city schools chief Andrés Alonso, led the effort to spur the General Assembly to pass the school construction bill, which comes up for a hearing in the House of Delegates next Tuesday.
It was one of the largest rallies in Annapolis this year, appearing to rival a pro-gun-rights event earlier this month. Organizers said more than 3,000 people signed up for bus rides to the school construction event.
Joseph Reichelt, a fourth-grader at Roland Park Elementary-Middle School, told the crowd his dream is to go to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study computer science.
"To do that, I need great computers and great computer labs," Reichelt said. "That's why I want you to get on the Block Grant Express" — a reference to the guaranteed annual payments the city is seeking to launch its 10-year reconstruction plan.
Among those introduced as "passengers" aboard the express were House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, both Democrats.
Brown said the state can't take a "Band-Aid approach" to renovating city schools. "We need to rebuild Baltimore's crumbling schools, and we need to do it now," he said.
Not yet fully on board is Gov. Martin O'Malley, also a Democrat, who has expressed interest in the concept backed by Alonso and Rawlings-Blake but not thrown his support behind the actual legislation. Raquel Guillory, the governor's spokeswoman, said O'Malley "definitely" wants to support their efforts and is continuing to hold "consultations and discussions" of the proposed plan.
The legislation faces tough scrutiny because it represents a departure from the way Maryland has traditionally funded school construction in the counties and Baltimore. Currently, the governor proposes a set amount of money to be used statewide, based on what is available in a given year. The money is then allocated to the 24 jurisdictions by a school construction commission.
The city is asking to be guaranteed a minimum annual block grant of $32 million — less than it has been receiving in recent years — so it can use that fixed funding stream to issue $1.1 billion in bonds to pay for the first half of the 10-year plan. The city plans to match the state contribution with revenue from a bottle tax.