Morgan Turner-Cohen, a senior at Baltimore Freedom Academy High School, says conditions at school are almost unbearable.
“I have to sit in classrooms with mittens and gloves and a hat,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to do that to focus on my work, shivering, writing my numbers on my notepad.”?
The Baltimore County-bred teenager moved to the city for high school. She notices a distinct difference between county and city schools.
“To me, I think just really doesn’t care about city schools,” she said. “I went to a county school and they had regulated heating and regulated air…We need that heat; we need air conditioning in the hot summers, when we get our nose bleeds. We need that heat so we won’t be stuck to our chairs.”
A handful of community groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland (ACLU) and the Baltimore Education Coalition, say Turner-Cohen’s experience is far too common.
Currently, 40 Baltimore city school buildings are undergoing repairs, but roughly 70 percent of school structures need renovations.
ACLU is calling on elected leaders to formulate a plan to renovate all city schools buildings within eight years. Last week they launched their campaign, Transform Baltimore, to pressure city officials.
According to Bebe Verdery, a director at ACLU of Maryland, several other cities around the country have initiated comparable plans without bankrupting their government.
“In Greenville, South Carolina, they rebuilt all of their school buildings in five years, and without any new revenue,” she said. “What they did is what you do for your own house, you borrow the money up front and you build your house and you pay it off over time.”
But Greenville has half the number of schools as Baltimore. While they borrowed just $800 million to renovate their schools, Baltimore City needs $2.8 billion.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who attended the ACLU’s press conference, supports the plan, but says it would require a charter amendment for the creation of a fund strictly for school renovations. The city, she says, must also generate new revenue.
“We’re going to need some of that slots money and it’s supposed to be for either property tax reduction or for schools,” she said. “We’re going to need a lion’s share of that money.”
The school system is more responsive to maintenance issues “than we’ve ever had before in my history,” Clarke continued.
“So, I know that when we build these new schools and fix these schools, repair these schools they will be maintained. So this won’t happen again.”
The director of facilities design and construction for city schools, Lawrence Flynn, says it is possible to renovate the schools within the expedited time frame if money is allotted.
“It’s feasible, as long as the revenue stream can be there,” he said. “If you have a revenue stream of $100-150 million dollars a year, which by the way is less than Montgomery County government puts into their schools every year, then you can easily finance the plan.”
Transform Baltimore supporters say the city will only dig up money for school repairs, when citizens demand that they do.
“It’s our responsibility to build the political will to make this happen,” said the Rev. Glenna Reed of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD).
Terrell Williams, a middle school teacher with two students in the Baltimore City Public School System, says city leaders must address school renovations.
“There’s not a choice,” he said. “When there are infrastructural problems that affect people, we look to fix them. This is a problem. This is a major problem. Many of our schools look like prisons. That’s unacceptable for any kids.”
He taught summer school during the hottest days this summer in a classroom without air conditioning.
“It’s a major problem coming into a building and their trying to learn in a building that’s 106 degrees,” he said. “It’s very difficult to teach and because it’s difficult to teach, I know it’s difficult to learn.”
Turner-Cohen, the student at Baltimore Freedom Academy, says she sees a correlation between well-maintained school buildings and academic achievement that city leaders can’t ignore.
“Air conditioning and heat shouldn’t be a luxury; it should be a necessity,” she said.