For the charter amendments

When Baltimore voters go to polls Tuesday, they will decide on two charter amendments designed to address a pressing problem in the city and a lingering one. The first is an effort to tackle the estimated $2.8 billion in unmet needs for school construction and renovation, and the other is an attempt to increase political engagement in a city where few bothered to vote in the primary election and, sadly, even fewer are likely to cast ballots in Tuesday's general election. Neither of them is likely to accomplish much, but they aren't likely to do any harm either.

The first amendment sounds good on the ballot: "Nonlapsing funds for quality schools — reinvesting in our youth." It asks voters whether they favor "authorizing the establishment of [one] or more continuing, nonlapsing funds for the purposes of enhancing the educational environment in Baltimore City, by creating modern, state-of-the-art schools." Who could oppose that, except perhaps for someone who wonders where the money would come from?


And that's the rub. The amendment doesn't set up a revenue stream to make those "modern, state-of-the-art schools" come into being. It doesn't actually come with any money at all. It's a bit like opening a bank account "for the purposes of giving children the best Christmas ever" but not actually following up with a plan to save enough money to put those presents under the tree.

The initial version of the amendment, proposed by Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Councilman James Kraft, would have given the council new powers to appropriate money for the fund. But that provision was stripped out under pressure from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who rightly feared encroachment on the city's executive-centric budget process. As on the state level and in most other local jurisdictions in Maryland, the executive proposes a spending plan, and the council can only cut from it, not add new spending or move money around. That gives the mayor tremendous power that can be abused, but on the whole it is a good system because it sets up clear lines of accountability.


Once the council's power to appropriate funds was removed from the amendment, it became far less important a public policy question. If enacted, it would create a place for the mayor to set aside funds for schools or a vehicle through which private donations could be assembled to pay for construction or renovations. It's unlikely to be a major answer for the city's unmet needs, but it could help.

Ultimately, providing adequate facilities for city students is going to take bolder action, perhaps through the development of public-private partnerships, as some community leaders have recently begun to suggest, or through the creation of a new revenue source to allow the city to borrow larger amounts for capital projects. If there is any real good to come out of this charter amendment, it could be simply to focus public attention on the problem and create the expectation that the city should actually do something about it.

The implication of Mr. Young's effort is that Mayor Rawlings-Blake is not doing enough on her own to make education the city's top priority, and the notion is not without some merit. She has not sought a waiver to the city's maintenance of effort requirements for school funding, as some counties have, but that is less impressive in the context of how little of the city budget is devoted to education. And, despite promises, she has yet to outline her ideas for school construction. The mayor appointed a task force to look into the issue, and it was supposed to make its report in February. Her spokesman now says we should expect results in the next couple of weeks, but we've heard that before.

The second charter amendment, sponsored by Councilman Robert W. Curran, is supposed to tackle the problem of disengagement by young people in Baltimore's political process. It would lower the minimum age for City Council members from 21 to 18. Mr. Curran says it makes little sense that someone should be allowed to serve in the military but not in local government.

Given that the council has not exactly been overwhelmed by 21-year-olds seeking office, it seems unlikely that changing the age by three years is going to make much difference. It is also hard to imagine that someone so young could have the life experience necessary to be a good council member. That said, if ever there should be a young man or woman with the skills and drive to convince voters that he or she would represent them well, an age limit should not be a barrier.