Cathy Pugh's big moment has arrived. Getting elected mayor of Baltimore was lovely, but now comes the hard sweat of governing and leading. And her first big test is at hand: a $130 million budget gap in the city schools, and the threatened layoff of teachers.
The last thing Baltimore needs is any weakening of its commitment to the public schools. It's what drives parents crazy. It's what drives whole families right out of the city.
As Baltimore's chief executive, Pugh knows she needs to do something that, on paper, four previous mayors did not have to do — take responsibility for the education of thousands of children, K-12. She needs to be "the education mayor."
Pugh did not make that her campaign motto. She did not use the phrase during her inaugural remarks in December.
But she has called for more mayoral power over the schools and increased funding. She clearly realizes the time has come for a Baltimore mayor to be a zealous champion of education.
Pugh's predecessor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, gets credit for securing $1 billion to rebuild or renovate up to two dozen school buildings over 10 years. That was big. But getting better results from those schools — more kids reading by third grade; more high school freshmen graduating in four years instead of five; more high school graduates prepared for college — should be a cause celebrated consistently by the mayor.
Other stuff is important: Fixing pipes, restoring public confidence in the water-billing system, getting the trash picked up, patching potholes.
And maybe nothing is as important as getting crime under control. Shootings have occurred with such frequency over the last two years that I've started to wonder in morbid reveries when attrition becomes a factor. Hundreds of Baltimoreans have been killed or wounded in the surge of shootings since the winter of 2015. With so many shootings, you'd think the city's at-risk population — adults who, by life circumstance, are predictably at risk of becoming a shooter or a shooting victim — would have been greatly reduced by now. Instead, the violence continues, as if the city has been hit with some kind of zombie contagion.
Pugh is ultimately responsible for public safety. And that's such a formidable challenge — there have been 72 homicides since Dec. 6, the day Pugh took the oath of office — what mayor would want to assert more responsibility over the schools?
Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said the school system is facing a $129 million deficit in next fiscal year's budget, the largest gap in recent years. (Baltimore Sun video)
In fact, mayors have had it pretty easy, when it comes to public education, for 20 years. Since 1997, when the city and state struck a deal to jointly control Baltimore's school system, mayors have been occupied with other matters — slowing population loss, redeveloping the waterfront, retaining and attracting businesses, reducing crime — while the city school board and the CEO ran the show from North Avenue. When the hyperactive William Donald Schaefer was mayor, it seemed like he had his hands in every aspect of local government — except the schools.
But, ultimately, if Baltimore is ever to reach its amazing potential, getting children educated and on a path to productive and healthy lives is critical. And having successful schools is critical to maintaining population growth.
I mean, how many times have we said this? It's great that young people are moving into the city. But, as committed as they might be to the new urbanism and Baltimore life, in particular, if the public schools don't improve, they'll eventually do what many of their predecessors did: they'll take their kids elsewhere. The ones who can afford it will enroll their children in private schools; others will head for the suburbs.
Maryland's six casinos have pumped $1.7 billion into the state's education trust fund — a financial windfall that advocates for gambling promised would go to the state's public schools. But state funding for public schools has not increased more than what was already required.
And, as a result, the city schools will continue to lose population, which appears to be a primary reason for the system's current financial problems.
When the Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises first reported the budget shortfall in January, Pugh released a statement, and it was pretty weak. "Unfortunately," it began, "the Baltimore City Public School System is forced to address a significant structural deficit and I know that Dr. Santelises is using every resource available to her to address this situation."
The same day, City Council President Bernard "Jack" Young offered a much stronger reaction: "Make no mistake, today's news is potentially devastating for the children and their families who depend on public schools in Baltimore."
About two weeks ago, a Baltimore dad with two children in a city school wrote to me, expressing concern that Pugh did not have the chops to be a fighter for city. "During the campaign," Brendan Lilley wrote, "I found Catherine Pugh to be wholly uninspiring as a candidate. Her time in office thus far has only reinforced my impressions. It has been nearly three months since she was sworn in and I have yet to hear any articulation of her plans for the city. What issues motivate her? What initiatives does she have planned?"
Pugh's big chance has arrived, the first major test of her mayoralty, a real opportunity to lead.