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Blame state inaction for the condition of Baltimore schools | COMMENTARY

A young student waves back at the crossing guard after getting out of school early at Johnston Square Elementary School due to the heat and the lack of air conditioning in the building.
A young student waves back at the crossing guard after getting out of school early at Johnston Square Elementary School due to the heat and the lack of air conditioning in the building. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Once again, Baltimore schools were in the headlines as the heat index forced the district to close schools that lack air conditioning systems. Citing mismanagement, Gov. Larry Hogan criticized Baltimore City Public Schools and said that it was “unbelievable” that two dozen schools lack air-conditioning. But Baltimore City school officials’ air conditioning plan, which the governor approved, is on schedule to be completed by next school year. Meanwhile, there are many more critical school facility deficiencies that Governor Hogan continues to ignore.

What truly is unbelievable is that children in Baltimore City also miss more school days when old boilers falter. With the oldest schools in the state, most of the mechanical systems and structural elements in these buildings are far beyond their useful life and need to be completely replaced — leaking roofs, unsafe lead pipes, inadequate electrical systems and more. Given generational disinvestment from the state, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when Baltimore’s schools break down.

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While air-conditioning must be a top priority, so should heating systems and addressing the lack of adequate science labs, technology and other facility deficiencies that put children in Baltimore at a competitive disadvantage on every school day — not just during the warm months. No child can properly learn in such conditions.

The current condition of Baltimore City schools is not about local mismanagement. It is a result of structural racial and wealth inequity, and the failure of the state to act over many decades. Simply put, an estimated $150 million is needed annually for the routine maintenance of Baltimore school buildings based on industry standard. Currently, Baltimore City Public Schools contributes approximately $40 million to maintenance annually — money that comes directly out of funds that would otherwise be used for educational programs.

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Due to a big cut made by the General Assembly more than a decade ago to the 2002 “Thornton” education funding law, Baltimore City Schools fell short of a funding “adequacy” target by at least $342 million in fiscal 2017. Now, in order to have more money to contribute to school maintenance, Baltimore City Public Schools would have to cut teachers, other staff and programs that are already being shortchanged with the most recent funding shortfall.

Beyond routine maintenance, capital funding for renovations and new construction has also been significantly inadequate for decades. Baltimore City’s contribution to school infrastructure represents about one third of its general obligation bonds, which is in line with other Maryland counties. However, Baltimore City’s contribution ends up being much lower than neighboring counties due to its low wealth status.

Anne Arundel County, which is similar in size to Baltimore City in terms of population and school enrollment, generates well over $150 million for school infrastructure improvements annually. Baltimore can only generate $20 million annually. Even with state support (approximately $35 million a year), Baltimore City Public Schools receive only about 25% of the funding needed each year to keep up with infrastructure renewal. It’s easy to see that district wealth is the primary factor that has determined the current condition of school buildings statewide.

Despite deep-seated structural inequality, Baltimore is moving in the right direction on school infrastructure. The state passed Baltimore’s $1 billion 21st Century Schools Program in 2013, which uses an innovative financing model to implement a large-scale school construction plan proposed by the ACLU of Maryland and championed by dozens of community groups and thousands of parents, students and teachers citywide. Notably, two thirds of these funds are provided by Baltimore City Public Schools and Baltimore City.

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To date, 23 of 28 planned school buildings have been rebuilt and opened under the program, and eight more buildings are being added to the plan through the Built to Learn Act, which passed earlier this year. Still, much more is needed to address the roughly 80 city schools that will continue to age and deteriorate without a funding commitment. In those schools, tens of thousands of children will have to learn in substandard conditions. The ACLU of Maryland, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and law firm BakerHosteler has been seeking remedies to this unconscionable state of affairs for nearly two decades in an ongoing lawsuit.

Maryland’s constitution guarantees a “thorough and efficient” education to all public-school students, which includes safe and functional facilities. Perhaps instead of spewing harmful rhetoric, the governor should collaborate with Baltimore City and counties to ensure that the constitutional right of all students is met.

Frank Patinella (patinella@aclu-md.org) is a senior education advocate at the ACLU of Maryland.

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