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Baltimore City Council taps youth fund to help kids access distance learning, food during coronavirus pandemic

The City Council voted Monday to use at least $9 million from the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund to buy kids food and laptops and internet for distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

City Council President Brandon Scott said the withdrawal aligns with the purpose of the fund to address systemic inequalities in Baltimore, which the crisis has only made more clear. About $6 million will go toward boxed meals being distributed at city recreation centers, as well as groceries for families without enough to eat. City schools will receive about $3 million to buy equipment to get students online and learning.

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“Our children need food and digital access now, so this is a no-brainer for me,” Scott said, calling it an “out of the box” solution to the city’s long-standing inequities.

The council voted unanimously for the withdrawal, which is expected to go to the Board of Estimates next week for approval.

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Tapping the youth fund was one of several actions the council took Monday to address the coronavirus crisis and its aftermath. The members also agreed to extend the city’s state of emergency indefinitely and to prohibit landlords in Baltimore from raising rent or imposing late fees until the crisis has abated. The mayor and governor already have halted evictions during the emergency.

The youth fund has a balance of about $17 million and is set to receive an additional $17 million when the new fiscal year starts in July. The legislation to authorize the withdrawal also creates new, permanent governance for the fund.

Voters approved the fund in 2016 to invest directly in Baltimore’s young people, with a focus on funneling tax dollars to community-based, minority-led organizations.

But critics have lamented delays in getting money to grassroots organizations serving the city’s young people. A second round of grants was expected last fall, but the money was not distributed.

Associated Black Charities has managed distribution of the funds on an interim basis. It allocated about $10 million to about 85 grantees in the fall of 2018. Many of the groups expected they would receive another year of funding after they submitted financial reports, but as late as February officials were only beginning to send out applications and finalize distributions to some of the groups.

Beginning on July 1, control of the fund will transfer to a new nine-member board.

Lester Davis, a top aide to Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said the fund was designed to respond to critical needs, and through the withdrawal of money during the pandemic, it will accomplish that.

“Food insecurity and access to technology — those are the things young people are dealing with right now,” Davis said. “What better way to put the fund to work than to address these two areas that look at immediate need?”

Diamonté Brown, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said the digital divide in the city is deep.

The union sent a letter — signed by 50 other organizations — to city officials last week to urge them to make an emergency financial investment to purchase technology for the “tens of thousands” of students who need computers or internet access in their homes so they can continue to learn during the pandemic.

“In order for our students to compete with their peers and for them to access a 21st-century education, it is imperative for them to have access to technology,” Brown said.

Councilman Zeke Cohen said using the youth fund money for technology and food is a direct response to needs cited by parents, teachers and others. He said that while the withdrawal is necessary, it is a one-time move and comes as the fund is about to be replenished.

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“The COVID-19 crisis has in many ways exacerbated inequalities and revealed the depths of inequities in our city,” Cohen said. “It would be irresponsible to allow the digital divide to continue to lock our children out of learning, or for any of our young people to go hungry while there is money sitting in a fund.”

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