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How do Baltimore's mayoral candidates stack up on schools?

In a story today, my colleague Julie Scharper and I outlined the plans of Baltimore city's mayoral candidates for tackling the pressing tasks facing Baltimore city schools.

Although the mayor does not oversee the day-to-day operations of the school system, that state of education has emerged as the most important issue in this year's primary election. And, the resounding consensus among community leaders and other stakeholders  is that the next mayor cannot offer casual support in such a critical year. We had some great educators, students and community leaders who brought this story to life, and whose passion in this story raised the level of intensity surrounding the education debate in Baltimore.

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Baltimore students will be hosting a mayor's forum on Wednesday, August 10 at 7 p.m. at the Carmelo Anthony Rec Center, located at 1100 E. Fayette Street. A free reception will precede a question-and-answer session with the candidates, led by students. As of Monday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake had not confirmed her attendance, however, candidates Otis Rolley, Catherine Pugh, Jody Landers and Frank Conaway have.

In our story today, the candidates, including Rawlings-Blake, sounded off about how they would address the following challenges: improving the school system's dilapidated infastructure--an estimated $2.8 billion task--which is at the forefront of the education debate right now; increase funding for the system beyond the city's obligatory levels--which have not increased with enrollment--as the school system's budget crunches are increasingly being felt at the school level; and help the system rebound from a series of disappointments, including a flurry of cheating scandals and across-the-board test score declines.

Here's a breakdown of where the candidates stood on the issues:

Improving school facilities:

•Rawlings-Blake's plan to fund school facility improvements has been delayed six months; she says it will be released in the next few weeks. She would designate 10 percent of slots money to school construction.

•Rolley would look to public-private partnerships to help fund improvements of 50 schools in the next decade; would dedicate almost all slots revenue to school construction.

•Pugh would press the business and philanthropic community to partner in renovating schools, as was done in her partnership with Maryland Institute College of Art President Fred Lazarus for a design school the two will open this fall.

•Landers would look to close and consolidate schools and programs; convert large spaces, like vacant shopping centers, into classrooms.

•Conaway would look to the private sector to help with funding, specifically developers who have received tax breaks from the city. He also wants more scrutiny of city schools facility contractors, to ensure they are providing honest pricing.

Increased funding for city schools:

•Rawlings-Blake emphasized the city has maintained its "maintenance of effort" to the school system, even with a large budget deficit. .

•Rolley said the state needs to continue its full funding of city schools under the Thornton formula; says answer is not to keep putting money in the schools, but ensuring stewardship of the money already in the system.

•Pugh would look for more money for city schools as she overhauls the city's budget to cut administrative costs.

•Landers would also look for more money to support the school system by cutting city administrative costs.

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•Conaway said that if the city can find $304 million for a hotel, it can find more money for schools.

Supporting city's academics:

•Rawlings-Blake would continue supporting Teach for America, city schools CEO Andrés Alonso and the efforts of the school system, such as the new teachers union contract.

•Rolley would return the system to mayoral control, and champion a voucher program for students zoned for the city's five worst-performing middle schools.

•Pugh would be a full partner with the school system, and start by opening a dialogue about what tools the system needs to prevent cheating and declining test scores.

•Landers said that morale is biggest challenge in city schools right now and would propose that Alonso have a forum to hear from teachers and the community who are frustrated; would help the system to restore public trust in the wake of cheating scandals and academic backslide.

•Conaway would promote more vocational programs in the city's schools, to teach students academic and job skills.

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