Baltimore school fund: Right problem, wrong solution

Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young is absolutely right that the city's school buildings are badly outdated and that the city is not doing nearly enough to reduce the backlog of maintenance problems, estimated at some $2.8 billion. As children are sent home because their non-air-conditioned schools are too hot to provide a conducive learning environment, he has picked a good time to remind the city that the poor state of school facilities has a real effect on academic achievement. However, the means through which he has chosen to address the issue — a charter amendment he and Councilman James Kraft have introduced to create a special fund for school facilities improvements — is both problematic in terms of city policy and unlikely to make a serious dent in the problem.

The subtext of Mr. Young's effort is the notion that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is not devoting enough money to education and that the council thus needs to be given greater authority to correct that in a way that the city's normal budgeting process, in which the mayor is the sole appropriator of funds, does not allow. But if the City Council believes the mayor's priorities are out of line, they have the power under the current system to do something about it. The could cut money the mayor appropriated for items they consider to be lower priorities and instruct her that they will cut it again unless she spends it on schools. That sort of negotiation between the legislature and executive happens on the state level all the time.

It would work in the city, too, but it would pose two distinct political disadvantages for the council. First, it would force the members to make some difficult choices about what the city will spend less money on — something they have traditionally been reluctant to do, as evidenced by the frequency with which they cut little or nothing from the mayor's annual budget proposals. And second, it robs them of the cachet of being the ones to do the appropriating.

The proposal Messrs. Young and Kraft are backing would put a charter amendment on the November ballot to set up a special fund controlled by the council that could be spent only on school construction or renovation, construction or improvement of school athletic facilities, or school materials. It would be funded one of three ways: by appropriations from the mayor, by grants and donations, and by any fees, fines or other revenues that the council decides to dedicate to it. The council president is not actually proposing any new revenue sources to go along with his bill, though existing fees or fines could theoretically be diverted into it from the general fund.

Doing so, however, would just require cuts elsewhere in the budget. Furthermore, dedicating new or existing revenues to one purpose is generally a bad practice, regardless of how noble the cause. Walling off portions of the budget robs the city of the flexibility it needs to meet new problems as they arise. This fund may never be large enough to cause a problem, but it would set a bad precedent.

Moreover, if the fund isn't large enough to have a major impact on the city budget, one wonders what the point is in the first place. Eliminating a $2.8 billion facilities backlog is going to require real sacrifices, and until city leaders start spelling out what they are, they are not truly addressing the problem.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake convened a task force to come up with solutions for the facilities backlog, but its report, due in February, has been pushed back to this month. Mr. Young is right to criticize the delay and can justifiably argue that the city hasn't really made education its No. 1 priority. The Rawlings-Blake administration has fully funded its school budget and has not asked for a waiver from its state maintenance of effort requirements, as some counties have done, but schools make up such a small part of city spending compared to other jurisdictions that full funding isn't anything to brag about. If Mr. Young and his colleagues were to set out a roadmap for how the city could change that, it would be welcome. But setting up a fund that contains no actual funds is just a way of appearing to do something about the problem without accomplishing much.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad