Mayor Martin O'Malley focused on the school system's classroom successes and administrative failures yesterday in his fifth State of the City address, in which he also invoked the memory of several recently deceased local leaders, highlighted declining violent crime and warned that another tough budget year lies ahead.
O'Malley announced that the city will commit $1 million to Reason to Believe, an outgrowth of the mayor's anti-drug Believe campaign that offers assistance to a range of people in need, from expectant mothers to preschoolers.
Speaking in City Council chambers to about 100 people, including Republican Party officials who distributed a harshly worded response, O'Malley noted that Baltimore was devastated by fire 100 years ago this week.
"Over these last few decades, we have been scorched by the devastating fires of addiction and violence," he said. "But from these ashes, Baltimore once again is rising."
O'Malley gave only a quick mention to what some see as the city's worst problem, its high number of homicides. The number has fallen during O'Malley's administration, but it increased last year to 271, up from 253 in 2002. O'Malley campaigned in 1999 on a pledge to reduce annual homicide totals to 175 by 2002.
"Although our homicide rate remains too high," he said, "violent crime is at its lowest level since 1970. In very real terms, 20,000 fewer of our neighbors, friends and relatives were victims of violent crimes than if we had stayed at 1999's level of violence."
State Republicans seized on the issue with a written statement handed out immediately after the speech. O'Malley, a Democrat, is widely expected to challenge Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2006.
"The expected positive spin ... will do nothing to hide the fact that for all the mayor's tough talk on crime and elaborate schemes to keep criminals off streets, Baltimore still ranks as one of America's most dangerous cities," Eric Sutton, executive director of the Maryland GOP, said in the statement.
O'Malley devoted most of his 45-minute speech to the school system. Reading and math scores have been improving and first- and second-graders are scoring above the national average on standardized tests for the first time in 30 years, the mayor noted.
But at the same time, the system has accumulated a $58 million deficit.
"We must rebuild the administrative side of our school system before it derails our hard-won progress in the classroom," he said.
O'Malley recognized schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland in the audience and ticked off some steps she has taken to address the deficit, including layoffs.
O'Malley warned that the budget would be tight given shrinking state and federal dollars. He criticized Republican presidents going back to Ronald Reagan for "starving state and local government with trickle-down cuts to public safety, transportation and schools." He also criticized Ehrlich, without naming him, for cutting aid to the city.
The mayor began his address by recalling civic and political leaders who died in the past year, from West Baltimore activist Myrtle "Mama Myrt" Howerton to state Del. Howard P. Rawlings.