1. Please describe your educational and professional background and how it has prepared you to serve on the City Council.
I believe the 9th needs the combination of skills that I as a teacher bring to the table. It needs understanding, inspiration, and advocacy, which teachers do every day with and for their students. As a teacher I regularly find myself in situations for which I must resolve conflicts, build coalitions, and focus my students' collective attention on what is important. I intend to carry these skills with me to the Council, where I will advocate for productive discourse over political gamesmanship; for strategic policies over impulsive expedients; and for pursuit of long-term goals over short-term gains. It is a special historic thrill for me to be running for this seat that was held by the first woman ever to win elected office on the Baltimore City Council, Victorine Q. Adams and who was a teacher as well. As a teacher, I understand that everything comes back to education, as I'm sure Councilwoman Adams did as well. Education means children in schools -- quality teaching, student support, safe and modern school facilities -- but it also means the ways neighborhoods teach children, and the ways in which learning continues throughout people's lives.
My educational background boils down to a lifetime of studying inequities and its remedies. As a child at the epicenter of activism concerning a school desegregation case in Springfield, Illinois; as a girl and faculty child at an all-male college, as a student at the University of Chicago [a gated bastion of mostly white privilege on the mostly black and poor South Side of Chicago]; as a charter Teach for America corps member in South Central Los Angeles during the racial and economic tensions and inequities that led to the 1992 riots; as a founder of Southwest Baltimore Charter School; and as a Master of Education student in the education of at-risk learners while teaching special ed at Booker T. Washington Middle School and then at the Baltimore Lab School, I have continually sought experiences that place me on the line between despair and opportunity in America. That line is exacerbated and reinforced by inequity according to race, economic status, gender, nationality, and disability, and the pursuit of equal opportunity for all seems to me to be the most engaging professional pursuit possible. My greatest joys have come in connection with and service to others.
My service to Baltimore as a teacher will be amplified by being in government, and I am eager to serve in the most effective way possible.
2. Why do you want to serve on the council? What would your top priorities be if you are elected?
I am running for City Council because I'm ready for a new kind of service. I have spent 20 years watching children come through my classroom carrying in the weight of the world from their streets, their communities, and their homes. I have worked with each child to support his or her talents and mitigate his or her burdens, but it seems to me that it is time to work for those children by working on those streets, and those communities, so that the adults in those homes can meet the needs of their families.
As I was teaching special ed at Booker T. Washington Middle School in 2004, and after more than a decade in the classroom, I entered into an effort to start a school that would refuse to accept and perpetuate the toxic cycles I saw every day at Booker T. That effort led to the life-affirming, academically rigorous Southwest Baltimore Charter School, and it demonstrates that replacing toxic cycles with positive cycles lifts up an entire community through each individual involved. I want to bring that experience and that faith in the talents of our friends and neighbors to the city.
I want to address education in neighborhoods. This means children in schools, rec centers, parks, and pools, but it also means the role of the community in a person's life experience. Breaking the school to prison pipeline, the opportunities for returning ex-offenders, the ways in which people manage their health, job readiness, self-advocacy, financial literacy -- all of these break down when education doesn't work, and all of these are possible when education does work. Neighbors, parents, siblings, employers, doctors, co-workers are all educators, and in order to break toxic cycles that have built up over time we need to support all of them in being the best teachers they can be -- and demand that they continually improve their skills.
Teachers know that investing in human potential is the smartest investment our city can make with the greatest pay-off, and I want to go downtown and advocate for investing more in our people. The 9th needs that kind of educated perspective now more than ever, with school reform not fully accomplished, widespread single parenting, and the lowest life expectancy in the city. We still need a councilperson who understands not only intuitively but through rigorous experience and training the needs of children, women, and families. We still need the kind of Councilperson whose top professional priority for 20 years has been and continues to be securing a brighter future for children, and who is eager to get to work!
3. Do you support Baltimore's current crime-fighting strategy? What changes, if any, would you advocate for to improve public safety in the city?
Crime control is not what ultimately leads to lasting public safety, opportunity is. In the short term, I support law enforcement's current efforts to target violent repeat offenders and provide expanded drug treatment and mental healthcare to ex-offenders through initiatives like the Maryland Public Safety Compact. In the long term, I support a combination of education and enforcement to eliminate both violent and quality-of-life crimes. Education in this instance includes job training and internships for area residents and youth with local institutions to build employment opportunities, reclamation of abandoned and public spaces, and efforts to involve community members with each other and their space. In this way crime becomes a less attractive way to make a living, people's sense of connection and responsibility to each other is strengthened, a skilled work force is nurtured, and public spaces reflect respect for the residents around them. Youth employment, whether through Youthworks or through local businesses that need part-time and extra summer help, is particularly important in order to train young people in good work habits, high expectations, and awareness of their own capabilities for positive contributions to their employers and communities -- as well as financial literacy.
I also believe that effective policing must include personal relationships and individuals' senses of accountability. As I have walked the blocks of the 9th District, residents have repeatedly brought up "Officer Friendly." They are hungry for officers who get out of their cars and walk, who build ties with children, who recognize families, who understand and are a willing participant in each neighborhood.
4. Do you support the recent reforms in the Baltimore City school system? Do you believe any changes are needed in the schools' governance structure (such as direct mayoral control or an elected school board)?
Many aggressive efforts are being made to reform schools in Baltimore. As a teacher involved in reform efforts for 20-some years, I know first-hand about many efforts at reform. There is no doubt that we still have a long way to go, but since enrollment across the City school system is going up, I take that as a sign that meaningful improvements are underway and more parents are entrusting their children to public schools. For this reason I support many of the initiatives pioneered by Dr. Alonso, such as increased fiscal power for principals, support for charter schools, the new teachers' contract, and the combined middle and high school "transformation" schools. My own charter school, Southwest Baltimore Charter School, has attracted families away from private schools and added them back into the school system, which in turns attracts more resources, both monetary and political, to city schools. The Community School program, funded by the city, not BCPSS, also is very important as a site-based, responsive model of school programming that helps schools be both more effective and more connected to the communities they are in. Good public schools of any governance model are a leading attractor of families back into communities, and so effective school reform efforts themselves, even without additional community, environmental, economic, or housing improvements, lead to the return of young families to an area.
However, I think our city should take more responsibility for our schools. While the City Council and Mayor do not have oversight of the school system, there are many ways in which the school system and city government intersect, and I think the city should show through investment in schools and responsible engagement that it is ready to take control back.
I have no clear answer on what that control should look like. As a student in public schools in three different states, and as a public school teacher and union member in three different states, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what makes a good school board structure, and I still don't know. No combination of elected/appointed/mayoral elements seems to work very well unless the combination of personalities involved works well. What I have learned is that local control and accountability is the best of a series of imperfect options, particularly mayoral control. Rather than electing some members to the school board as currently designed, I would rather return control of the school to the city's mayor. Beyond that, the composition of appointed versus elected boards are problematic no matter how they're structured, and I would welcome a robust debate to help us develop better options. As an educator, I believe that there are professional standards of education and curriculum, and subjecting those standards to the whims of the politically opportunistic is what has lead to xenophobic and anti-science decisions about educational content and delivery in various school boards across the country in recent years not to mention some dreadful schools. At the same time, appointments to school boards can result in political cronies of the appointers making uninformed decisions that research and professionals should be guiding. Neither election nor appointment is ideal. We don't decide what is appropriate cancer treatment by elections, and it would be easier if educational policy were just as purely research-based as medical treatment policy among doctors. However, our schools are the engines of democracy, and everyone experiences them. So, on some level, everyone should have some kind of say in how they transmit our democratic values and the skills needed to maintain and improve that democracy. It's a conundrum to revisit rigorously and regularly, and in the rigor find appropriate enough answers for the times.
5. How would you address the city's backlog in school maintenance and renovations, estimated to be as much as $2 billion?
In fact, the backlog is estimated to be $2.8 billion according to the ACLU and BCPSS in a presentation to the City Council's Committee on Education this spring. I know this as an organizer with the Baltimore Education Coalition and a student of the ACLU's research on school facility funding and deficiencies in Maryland. I will work hard to support the ACLU plan to address the massive school facilities deficits, because even though reform efforts have made some inroads in the quality of instruction and curriculum, crumbling school buildings are themselves a barrier to high student achievement. When all else is equal, student test scores are several points lower in a falling-apart school with broken bathrooms, dysfunctional gyms, and no potable water than in a modern, attractive building. We can take lessons from the successes of New Haven, Greenville, SC, and the state of Georgia in innovative tax and partnership strategies. Using slots revenue for its intended purpose for school facilities is essential and is the strategy most close at hand. This revenue could be used to pay the debt service on bonds the city could sell to finance school renovation and construction instead of for negligible income tax reductions. Other strategies are a local option sales limited-period sales tax dedicated to school facilities and holding the state to its obligation to provide adequate school buildings for all of Maryland's children.
6. Property taxes have become a major issue in this year's election. Do you believe the city's tax rate needs to be cut? If so, by how much, and what steps would you take to keep the city's budget in balance while lowering the rate?
I am agnostic on the question of cutting property taxes. I believe good services, especially good public education, is a much more attractive feature of a place than low taxes leading to bad services. I would support a tax overhaul in order to bring fairness and simplicity to our tax code. Closing loopholes may enable us to lower rates across the board. Certainly, enforcing our tax law on the books now would in itself be a good place to start. It has been an open secret for years that slumlords claim homeowner tax credits on houses that are abandoned, and this is only one example of the laws on the books that are not diligently and equitably enforced. Others are housing, parking, and trash code violations. If our city communicated expectations clearly and carried through on threatened sanctions, our absentee neighbors' properties would have intact roofs, glass in their windows, cut grass, and far fewer vermin -- and city coffers would be fatter. Our tax code should encourage pro-social individual and business practices and punish anti-social ones. Negligent property owners should pay higher taxes, improving properties should be rewarded, the junk food subsidy should be ended, etc. I support a tiered property tax for properties that are primary residences, rentals, vacant, and blighted.
7. The city has faced large budget shortfalls in recent years. If that trend continues, what top priorities would you protect from cuts? In what areas would you pursue spending reductions?
Education, public health, and public safety must be our top priorities. They also consume most of our resources. In such desperate economic times, it would be with a heavy heart that I would support removing funding from all the initiatives that make our city more livable and enjoyable but that are not part of those three categories of responsibility. I also believe there is a lot of waste, and that reform efforts to reboot Baltimore's civic class and instill a greater demand for and pride in high quality service would free up a lot of money for better services. I also believe people are willing to pay for what they believe in, and dedicated revenue streams for such services are not a hard sell. I would support an overhaul of the city code in order to close loopholes and eliminate duplicative, irrelevant, and/or contradictory ordinances, fees, and taxes. I would also support giving the City Council the power to raise revenues for limited, defined purposes, as the recent bill to raise revenues for school facility improvements would have done. Although it did pass, it did not in the end give the council that power because of the way it was amended. I also believe that tax policy is inevitably social engineering, in that it cannot help but reward or punish behavior, and I would like to see our city taxes more closely aligned to behaviors we actually want to discourage or promote.
8. Baltimore has lost tens of thousands of jobs in the last decade. What would you do to encourage economic development and provide employment opportunities for city residents?
I think local institutions can play a much greater role in engaging with communities. For example, a local institution like the BioPark could more actively encourage its tenants to reach out to residents and local students through internships, corporate volunteer programs, and targeted philanthropy. Similarly, such institutions could stimulate local real estate markets by offering incentives to employees to occupy neighborhood housing such as the Live Near Your Work program. City bid requests could contain much stronger benchmarks that reward developers who demonstrate a plan to offer training and employment to local residents. Community Benefits Agreements in other areas offer many lessons in how to make the large development projects coming to the 9th District work for the surrounding communities. At the same time, we should nurture small established business and encourage local entrepreneurship. I would advocate for state and/or city investment in mom-and-pop entrepreneurship incubation similar to the Governor's fund to incubate biotech start-ups. Small businesses account for most job creation, and I want the City to be more deliberate in supporting them.
District 9: Abigail Breiseth
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