A charter amendment to create a city account designated for the restoration of deteriorating schools cleared the City Council Dec.6. The non-lapsing account redirects city council funds to renovation projects for existing schools as well as the construction of new facilities.

Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Councilman James Kraft, D-1, introduced the legislation late last month to tackle the city’s $2.8 billion shortfall for capital school renovations.

City officials say revenue generated from fines, fees, grants, donations and the annual Ordinance of Estimates could fund the project.

It now awaits approval from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has initiated similar plans for school improvements. She held a news conference with city schools CEO Andres A. Alonso Nov. 22 and announced the formation of a taskforce to study the measure.

The 10-member unit – which includes leaders in construction, planning, city schools and the Mayor’s office – will explore financing and legislative options to implement a school restoration plan by Feb. 2011.

“The simple truth is that existing funding sources – both city and state – will never meet the current and future capital improvement needs of our school system,” Rawlings-Blake said at the news conference.

The budget shortfall threatens recent city gains in student achievement, she noted. “While we do not have a solution to address this massive problem today, one thing is clear: doing nothing is not an option.”

Young says his “out-of-the-box” charter amendment “will not singularly solve this funding crisis, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

“We owe it to the youth of Baltimore that our schools are second to none,” he said on the City Hall floor Dec. 6, “but you see our schools and wonder what our priorities are.”

The City schools system needs over $1.5 billion for basic facilities maintenance and another $1.3 billion for major renovations and new school construction. The new improvements would forge a more competitive, healthier learning environment, said the Mayor’s office.

Studies show schools in poor condition encumber student success and lead to higher rates of absenteeism and dropouts. According to a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, students in urban areas “flounder in decaying, violent environments” with poor or limited resources.

“Our school buildings send a message to our students every day about how we, as a community, value their education,” Alonso said in a written statement. “The quality of our facilities must match the high expectations that we have for our students.”

Baltimore City has some of the oldest school facilities in Maryland, yet receives less state funding than any other education system, the Mayor said.

“By passing this amendment,” said Kraft, “we will be ensuring that we are exploring every available resource to improve the conditions in which our students are learning.”

If approved by Rawlings-Blake, the new measure would require a referendum, or a popular vote by the electorate, to become law. Last month, voters approved a charter amendment to develop a similar fund for sustainability.

A public hearing for the school fund is scheduled for early January.

 

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO