Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott urged Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young on Wednesday to use an estimated $34 million city budget surplus on heating and cooling in schools, the lack for years of which has caused students to stay home — or be sent home — on particularly intemperate days.
Young said he urged Scott to use “caution” in issuing such calls because the city has lots of other bills that are coming due soon — including those related to the Justice Department’s consent decree for police reforms and other pending school investments outlined by the state’s Kirwan Commission.
“I’m committed to Kirwan," Young said of the group tasked with studying and recommending improvements to public education funding. "If the school system has issues with their cooling and heating, they need to get that fixed.”
Baltimore City Public Schools operate independently of the city, though its budget — using federal, state and city funding — must be approved by the City Council. The mayor also appoints school board members, who appoint the superintendent.
The school system, in a statement, said it welcomes “any support that City leadership wants to offer to make sure that our students have access to the facilities and programming they deserve.”
“As we know, outside entities have consistently documented that City Schools is underfunded annually by hundreds of millions of dollars,” the system said. “While we’ve made progress with our plan to install air conditioning in all our schools, funding limitations slow the pace of progress on ensuring all students have access to air conditioned buildings.”
Scott has announced he will run for mayor in 2020. Young, who would be the incumbent candidate, has not formally announced a campaign.
Their back and forth on budget funding Wednesday pitted two priorities of school and youth advocates against each other. Both hinge on the perceived and real inequities in funding between city schools and some of Maryland’s more wealthy counties.
Images of Baltimore school children shivering in their classrooms in heavy coats went viral in late 2017, drawing national attention to the poor conditions in city schools.
Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers in Annapolis have been waging a political battle against Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, over recommendations of the Kirwan Commission that $4 billion more be spent on education by the state and localities in coming years.
Hogan has lambasted the plans as carrying massive, unrealistic costs that would jack up Maryland residents’ taxes. Democrats and education advocates said the spending increases can be managed if education is made a priority, and with costs spread out over several years.
By 2030, under a proposed plan released by a commission work group Tuesday, Baltimore city schools would get $503 million more from the state. But the city also would be required to nearly double its spending on schools, spending an additional $329 million.
In a Wednesday letter addressed to Young, Scott noted that city finance department officials said at a City Council budget committee hearing that Baltimore has a $34 million surplus, after multiple supplemental appropriations were issued since the end of the last fiscal year. Scott said he understands that amount “is unaudited and may decrease,” but stressed how much that money might help with school air conditioning issues.
He said $34 million would cover at least half of the high-end estimate of nearly $68 million it would take to install window air conditioning units in schools.
“There will always be urgent, competing fiscal constraints governing our budget, but it is imperative the City contribute to these much-needed infrastructure upgrades,” Scott wrote. “This is a small, but necessary step towards more robust investments in our youth.”
Young said "the school system should be addressing [heating and cooling needs] on their own, within their own budget,” but that the city would do what it has to meet the needs under the Kirwan Commission’s plans.
“We are going to find the money that we have to find to put up the city’s match that the state wants us to put up. We’re going to find it,” Young said. “We have to do it. We have to find it.”
Young said the city’s finance director, Henry Raymond, “is already looking at things that we can do” to meet the heavy fiscal demands.
“I’m not talking about raising no taxes, though. You can forget that,” Young said. “We’re just going to have to find the money within the means that we have.”
The City Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing Dec. 3, based on a resolution introduced by Scott in August, where Raymond will brief the council on Baltimore’s “fiscal readiness” for any school funding formula changes under Kirwan, and schools CEO Sonja Santelises will discuss the potential implications for schools.