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Rebuilding schools, rebuilding Baltimore

Over the last 10 years leaders from the private, public and nonprofit sectors have begun to transform Baltimore's approach to its future. Traditional public subsidies have given way to strategic investments and tough decisions, using market-based techniques to reform our schools, rebuild our population, and make our neighborhoods safe, clean, green and vibrant.

Now, the General Assembly must do its part to strengthen the city's future by passing legislation to reshape how the city makes improvements to its public school buildings. The city's plan is straightforward and achievable: act aggressively now to build or rebuild our school buildings and give every child in the city a welcoming school environment that will help engage them in learning.

It is a proposal that will help kids, create a stronger school system, bolster the city's prospects for growth and benefit the entire state.

Legislators must be reminded that Baltimore has already taken many hard steps to improve its educational system. A "choice" system gives middle and high school students the opportunity to "vote with their feet," with dollars following those students to the best-performing schools. A union contract sets a national standard for holding teachers and principals accountable for their students' performance. And focused initiatives have increased the high school graduation rate and the number of preschoolers who are "ready for school." And schools that fail to meet increasingly rigorous standards are being closed.

These steps and more show that our civic and private leaders are serious about creating great schools that will change the trajectory of inner-city youth while attracting the middle class families necessary to any city's success.

Now, the focus is on providing a physical environment in Baltimore schools comparable to that in schools across Maryland. The legislative proposal to revamp the school system's capital process would lead to major and accelerated improvements in our school buildings, benefiting kids, teachers, staff and families.

The school system has done its homework, commissioning a study that put a price tag on infrastructure needs in every school building in Baltimore, and it has developed a plan that would shutter buildings, cut or merge programs, and renovate or rebuild 136 buildings.

The city schools bond financing plan to rebuild its inadequate infrastructure may be the best opportunity that Baltimore has had in a generation to cement its revitalization. Under the plan, an independent entity would be created to borrow significant funding through a bond issue to jump-start much-needed capital improvements, and use state and local funding to repay the bonds. It's important to note that the plan requires no extra money from the state, just a commitment to stand by current annual commitments. The timing is perfect. Interest rates are low; construction costs are manageable.

This effort in the General Assembly must be viewed not simply as a bricks-and-mortar educational initiative. Rather, it is part of a comprehensive effort to push for major changes that can move Baltimore forward and restore the city's role as an economic engine for Maryland.

The signs of momentum are apparent, whether it's ongoing downtown development, the bustling rental market driven by young professionals' interest in city life, or the emerging high-tech economy fueled by robust educational, medical and federal institutions. Across the city, private sector initiatives such as Healthy Neighborhoods Inc. are reestablishing "middle neighborhoods" that have wonderful assets but need a boost to continue to strengthen.

The bottom line is that thousands are choosing city life. If we can improve the schools they will stay. These young people can, by themselves, fulfill Mayor Rawlings-Blake's modest goal of attracting or developing 10,000 new taxpaying citizens.

The nonprofit Teach For America already pledged to fulfill 10 percent of the mayor's goal by helping their teachers engage in neighborhood leadership opportunities as they develop lasting ties with our city.

Such commitments from the nonprofit sector must be met by similarly ambitious initiatives from the public sector that enhance city life and build a business-friendly environment.

We have pressing goals: reducing crime, building a better transportation infrastructure that supports employment opportunities, and fostering an energetic business environment. But perhaps overriding them all is the need for a strong school system that will attract new families and new employers.

There is more hard work ahead to capitalize on the educational progress already achieved, but we can take a major step forward right now by changing how we build our schools.

A quarter century ago, state leaders overcame a host of issues to finance and build not one but two stadiums, leading to the winning seasons we now celebrate. Surely we can come together now to give our youth and our city and state the future they deserve.

Tom Wilcox is President of the Baltimore Community Foundation. Wes Moore is a best-selling author and host on the OWN television network. Tom Bozzuto is Chairman and CEO of the Bozzuto Group. All are trustees of the Baltimore Community Foundation.

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