In his first speech since being elected Baltimore's next mayor, Martin O'Malley challenged 400 area business leaders yesterday to help "wire" city schools for computers.
The 36-year-old city councilman, who takes on the city's top post next month, said several members of his transition team will spend the remaining month before his Dec. 7 inauguration determining how to upgrade city schools.
"It's now a wired world out there," O'Malley told a breakfast meeting of the Corporate Citizenship Program. "We cannot allow the digital divide to widen on our watch."
Baltimore school leaders estimate that less than 20 percent of their schools -- the oldest in Maryland -- have the necessary electronic and telephone lines for Internet access. City school officials estimate that it would cost $78 million to finish renovating the remaining 141 schools.
The Baltimore school district is trying to tap into $21 million in federal funds available to help poor schools upgrade their buildings. But to get the money, Baltimore will have to come up with matching funds, O'Malley said.
O'Malley's call for more school computers occurs two weeks after Gov. Parris N. Glendening pledged to ensure that all classrooms in the state will receive high-speed telephone and Internet hookups. The state will contribute up to $50 million statewide for the effort, Glendening said.
During his weekly news conference yesterday, departing Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke called the school computer issue a top challenge for his successor. "That wasn't an issue for mayors 15 years ago," Schmoke said. "It's a very important issue now."
Despite being 30 minutes late for yesterday's 7: 30 a.m. event, O'Malley was well-received by area business members such as Steven G. Tomsczewski, general manager with Baltimore RESCO Co. Ltd. waste management company.
"I think he has a lot of vision for the city," Tomsczewski said. "If you don't have a goal, you have nothing."
Added Martha Elliott, marketing representative for James F. Construction Co. Inc. of Towson: "I think he's going to be a take-charge guy. There is an air of excitement around him."
In his opening remarks at the event, sponsored by the Baltimore Business Journal, O'Malley joked about how his life has changed in the two days since being elected. O'Malley said he noticed more people laughing at his jokes and has already seen a marked improvement in how he is cast in newspaper editorial cartoons.
Yesterday, O'Malley was portrayed on the editorial page of The Sun as a muscular caped crusader, a reference to the "Batman" nickname he gained for his tough crime stance on the City Council.
"Before the election I was portrayed as a drunken leprechaun," he said.