Students call on city leaders to pass bottle tax

Patterson High School became the latest political battleground in the effort to rebuild Baltimore's decrepit school infrastructure this week, with students throwing their support behind a proposed bottle tax that could help raise about $300 million for facility upgrades.

The Baltimore Education Coalition led City Council Vice President Edward Reisinger and education advocates from around the city on a tour of Patterson on Thursday, where broken boilers and sweltering, cramped and ill-equipped classrooms offered a glimpse into the district's $2.8 billion list of repairs.

"We're tired of being in classes that feel like slave ships," said Patterson sophomore Asjuanae Duboyce. "It's not a good look for our school. That's why a lot of kids drop out of school."

At each of the five stops on the tour through the school, students handed each visitor a penny, symbolizing the 5-cent bottle tax that MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakehas proposed to help fund school facility improvements.

The tax, which would increase from 2 cents to 5 cents and generate $10 million annually, has faced opposition from retailers and the beverage industry, and will likely face a tough reception in the council's Taxation and Finance Committee.

The tax fits into the mayor's plan to devote $23 million annually in new funding that would allow the system to float as much as $300 million in bonds.

On Thursday, members of the education coalition highlighted the council members who were invited but missing from the tour, namely Councilman Carl Stokes, who chairs the Taxation and Finance Committee, council President Bernard "Jack" Young and Councilman James Kraft.

"We teach and preach accountability to our kids, but the adults around them don't model that," said Rashawna Sydnor, the parent of a city schools student. "The bottle tax calls on all of us to put our money where our mouth is, literally and figuratively."

During a visit to a stuffy classroom whose broken and opaque windows offered no relief from the unusually high February temperatures, advocates made impromptu calls to the offices of the council members, questioning their support on speaker phone.

A spokesman for Young, whose chief of staff answered the call, said Young has been at the forefront of this issue since last year, when his legislation created a designated fund for school facilities.

"He's on the same side as the advocates who are pushing for reform as it relates to school construction," said Lester Davis, Young's spokesman. "He's been at the table for a long time, and he is completely supportive of modernizing Baltimore City school buildings.

"As it relates to these pieces of legislation, they will get a speedy hearing, and he's been saying that from the beginning."

Two bills related to the bottle tax are expected to be introduced to the council Monday, Reisinger said.

One bill would extend the bottle tax — which is currently scheduled to end in July 2013 — and increase it from 2 cents to 5 cents per beverage.

The second bill would divert the revenue from the bottle tax to an education fund established by a vote last year, said Reisinger, who is the mayor's floor leader and tasked with shepherding her agenda.

The bills would head to the council's Taxation and Finance Committee and would require the committee's approval before moving to the full council.

Culminating the Patterson tour, Reisinger sat among a panel of his colleagues who were represented by a posterboard with the members' pictures taped on them, where he pledged his and the mayor's support.

"Walking through this school — every child deserves an A-plus for just being here," Reisinger said, adding that he fully supports the bottle tax. "I think some of my colleagues need to come to this school ... instead of worrying about some liquor store making a profit."

City schools CEO Andrés Alonso has also recently proposed a facilities plan that would use the mayor's bottle tax revenue to borrow up to $1.2 billion for a rapid overhaul of the district's infrastructure.

The plan — which would require the schools chief to borrow six times the current bonding authority — is championed by education advocates but has not received full public backing from the mayor and clashes with her plan to rebuild the system on revenue rather than debt.

For those waiting for a plan to come to fruition, it doesn't matter where the money comes from.

"When you walk into our school, it's like a ghost town," said Breshae Goodin, a Patterson sophomore who likened her school building to a prison. "When we go into the bathroom, it looks trashy."

"I don't think it's fair that the best parts of this school are for visitors to the main office," said classmate Larry Jones. "The line has to be drawn somewhere, and that is when it interrupts our learning."

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Scharper contributed to this article.

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