One in a series of articles on issues in the Baltimore mayor's race.
Baltimore school leaders, already under scrutiny from state and city officials and parents, also face a challenge from the top candidates for mayor — all of whom say they would seek a stronger role in managing the city's schools.
The candidates, who see improving schools as essential to Baltimore's future success, differ over how they would try to gain that power.
Some say they would use legislation to wrest more control from the state. Others want to use the power of the mayor's office to influence school decisions.
None of the top candidates has publicly endorsed or opposed Baltimore public schools CEO Gregory Thornton. But all speak of a need for the next mayor to make education a priority.
"It is now time to have the buck stop at the mayor," said Sheila Dixon, a former mayor who supports legislative changes. "Education is the foundation of what is going to change the trajectory of poverty and crime and what happens as we move the city forward."
The candidates in the April 26 Democratic primary have an understanding of the complexities of Baltimore schools.
City Councilman Carl Stokes, state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh and businessman David Warnock have helped start schools in Baltimore. Dixon taught elementary school. Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson ran an after-school program in Baltimore and rose to second-in-charge of the school system's human resources department.
Those who have not worked in city schools are graduates. Lawyer Elizabeth Embry graduated from City College. Councilman Nick Mosby says he almost flunked out of Poly because he had been so ill-prepared by his middle school.
The seven most prominent candidates express similar priorities for city schools: more money for pre-kindergarten, more community schools and better job training for high school students.
They differ on how they would exert their influence as mayor to make those changes.
County executives in Maryland have limited control over what happens in schools, and the mayor of Baltimore has even less. Decisions on day-to-day operations are left to a superintendent chosen by the local school board. Local governments have some power: School budgets are submitted to mayors and councils for review and approval.
In New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg disbanded the school board, took control and picked a superintendent who agreed with his approach to education.
No mayoral candidate in Baltimore is suggesting the abolition of the school board. Pugh and Dixonsay they would ask the governor and General Assembly to give the mayor sole discretion in selection of school board members, and therefore a greater say in who is CEO.
Others say that would be a waste of time. Warnock, Embry and Mosby say the governor would likely block any attempt to reverse the 1997 law that gave the governor and mayor equal say in appointing school board members and selecting superintendents in exchange for more state funding.
"There is no way we are going to Annapolis and get full control, given the current affairs of the state," Mosby said. He said the "tremendous amount of power" given to Baltimore's mayor in city government makes it possible for that person to influence school leaders' decisions without legislation.
Stokes said he would act as though he were "co-CEO" of city schools, and would ask the entire school board to step down. He said the board does not show a sense of urgency in improving schools, in which two-thirds of students in grades three through eight cannot pass the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers tests in reading or math.
Mckesson said mayoral control has worked in some cities but not others.
"What we know is effective is a clear plan that leverages all of the resources from city agencies in the work of making sure every student" gets a good education, he said.
Embry said the time and effort would be better spent improving schools than fighting a legislative battle in Annapolis.
"I think there is room to have a strong role working in partnership with the school board and the CEO," Embry said. "It is not the governor that is the main problem."
Some research suggests that mayoral control results in higher student achievement and better fiscal management. But such a shift in Baltimore would not guarantee improvement, an analyst said.
"It is not the silver bullet," said David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.
Some argue that a mayor and superintendent with the same vision for reforming schools can harness other city resources toward reform. Data can be shared across agencies, social services can be focused to help schools, and money can be moved to support a single vision.
"All of that is theoretically and practically more efficiently done when you have the mayor in charge of the whole thing," Steiner said.
There are various models of mayoral control; New York's gives the most direct control. In Boston, Cleveland and Providence, R.I., citizens have some voice in the choice of superintendents, Steiner said. The Providence City Council can reject the mayor's selection of a superintendent.
Baltimore's leading Democratic mayoral candidates share similar views on what needs to be improved.
Nearly all say the lawsuits filed by charter schools to gain more per-pupil funding could be resolved through negotiation rather than expensive litigation.
Stokes, Dixon, Pugh and others say they would spend more money on schools. Dixon and Stokes said they would do so by shifting money away from police. Thirteen percent of Baltimore's budget of more than $2 billion is spent on education. In neighboring Baltimore County, the proportion spent on schools is 52 percent.
The candidates say the school system should be audited annually or monthly. Too little money is being spent in the classroom, they say.
"North Avenue has obvious issues in terms of its bookkeeping and data systems," Embry said.
Mckesson was the only candidate who said that developing a long-term strategic plan for city schools would be a high priority. He said the district has lacked such a plan since Andres Alonso resigned as schools CEO in 2013. Thornton recently presented a plan to the school board, but it does not include specific goals approved by the school board.
Pugh said she wants more art and music in the schools. She and others say that keeping schools open for after-school activities and tutoring for students and educational opportunities for parents would help stabilize neighborhoods.
Mosby said some actions could improve schools immediately, including finding private and public money to start City Year, a program that places recent college graduates in schools to assist teachers.
Mckesson said the city needs an immediate plan to address the high rate of adult illiteracy.
For Mosby, improving education is both policy and personal. After working hard in middle school, he said, he was unprepared for Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. He was nearly sent back to his zoned high school, where he said he is sure he would have foundered and never made it to college.
"We have so much wasted potential throughout Baltimore," he said.