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A big build for city schools

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No heat in the winter. No air conditioning in the summer. Windows painted shut since the 1950s trap stagnant air that triggers infections and asthma attacks. Broken water fountains sit rusted outside crammed, crumbling classrooms.

The U.S. Constitution protects prisoners from ever facing such conditions. Yet a letter to the Baltimore Sun on Oct. 16 revealed that Baltimore's schoolchildren suffer these indignities every day. The writers were neither parents nor teachers but a group of middle school students themselves. They channeled their daily anger and said "[this] makes us feel unwanted."

We've seen their school, Holabird Academy, and we can't expect these kids to feel otherwise. They want to come to school to focus on learning, but their miserable building "doesn't offer this," as they put it. Nor do more than a hundred buildings like it in Baltimore. Instead, academic achievement suffers, students skip school and drop out, top-quality teachers leave the system and proud neighborhoods lose their economic backbone. The city and its people deserve better.

The estimated cost to get there: $2.8 billion. In these tough budget times, that's far more than what Baltimore and Annapolis can afford with traditional resources. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and schools CEO Andrés Alonso bring a sincere desire to solve this problem. We need to give them more innovative tools with which to work — and we need to do it now.

That's where a new breed of public-private partnership (P3) comes in. Governments around the world have recently deployed so-called "63-20" bonds to raise massive amounts of money for infrastructure improvements. Available only to nonprofit entities, these bonds encourage cities to partner with community groups to get more out of underused real estate assets like schools and libraries. Taking advantage of creative upfront financing options, the partnership can then leverage its resources to fund a sweeping transformation. In a traditional municipal bond program, cities can only afford to renovate a handful of schools at a time. That process would take decades.

This aggressive and proven solution would also instantly bring with it thousands of construction-related jobs.

The concept: A nonprofit corporation, having partnered with the city, issues the tax-free 63-20 bonds backed by a dedicated revenue source — such as the yearly operating and capital budgets for the schools — and other resources such as a potential new sales tax or community-generated revenue from use of school facilities. The nonprofit has effectively loaned the amount of the bond to the school system, which, over the course of the repayment term, can either lease back the asset or create a buy-back partnership.

A 63-20 partnership also provides a unique opportunity to improve efficiency and city planning. Packaging several facility renovations into one project yields economies of scale in construction and the ability to make real a new vision for an entire community.

Once these schools are improved, we can open them after hours and in the summer, or share space with local groups and businesses like daycare centers. Schools serving as local anchors — with their libraries, pools or auditoriums — can potentially bring in new private revenue from the community and help revitalize neighborhoods. If we make energy efficiency a priority, as we should, facility operating costs will drop drastically for decades to come.

These are not untested approaches. P3 initiatives for school construction have succeeded in places as diverse as Greenville County, S.C.; Niagara Falls, N.Y.; and Washington, D.C.

We ask for the city to consider forming such a partnership and developing a long-term maintenance plan that ensures these buildings remain in peak condition far into the future. We need to hold city government accountable, but we also need to expect more from our other leaders. At the same time, the state should explore how the Board of Public Works, the Interagency Committee on School Construction, and other public resources might make this program work. The state should also give the city and its residents the freedom to vote on its own dedicated funding mechanism to supplement the cost.

Colleges and universities can help by creating alumni booster campaigns to promote the program; collecting and sharing surplus equipment from their campuses; and sending their brightest minds to help execute such a large-scale program. They will reap the reward of better-educated incoming students who will not need to be provided remedial support.

Finally, corporate leaders should think about how their participation in this program would yield dividends for their workforce and bottom line. There is shareholder value in improved schools and strengthened communities.

The only limits on our opportunities are the limits on our creativity.

When we do this, we will do more than rebuild bricks and mortar. We will rebuild our knowledge base with students who are ready for all of Maryland's great vocational programs, community colleges, four-year colleges and universities. We will rebuild our workforce with graduates skilled in biochemistry, nanotechnology, sustainable agriculture and green manufacturing. We'll launch the next generation of teachers, health care providers, longshoremen and chief executives who will be the tax base of the city's future.

Children from high-poverty neighborhoods are already achieving at record levels in schools across the city. Imagine what they could do in humane conditions. Baltimore's schools and students are on the rebound, but their ultimate success requires modernized buildings. We owe our young and ourselves nothing less.

Del. Heather R. Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat, is vice chair for education and economic development on the House Appropriations Committee. Her email is heather.mizeur@house.state.md.us. Thomas E. Wilcox is president of the Baltimore Community Foundation. His email is twilcox@bcf.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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