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City Schools At Issue In Baltimore Mayoral Race
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Thursday, September 8, 2011
Baltimore's Mayoral candidates have spent the last couple months squabbling about issues such as crime, property taxes, and the just-finished Grand Prix. But as WYPR's Joel McCord reports, there is another issue to be addressed: the condition of the city's schools...
Holabird Academy sits near the top of O’Donnell Heights, overlooking sprawling St. Stanislaus Cemetery, where the headstones are festooned with plastic flowers. Librarian Terra Hiltner says that’s the prettiest part of her school.
“My students walk into a school that offers dimly lit hallways, rooms with no view, over and under heated classrooms, so the kids just come into a depressed building every single day.”
Indeed, the halls are dim, the paint’s peeling in places and the windows of decades old Plexiglas have developed a yellowish sheen that can’t be wiped off. Despite that, says Principal Anthony Ruby, the teachers do their best to make their classrooms attractive, like one pre-kindergarten room on the ground floor.
“Just looking around the walls, lots of bright colors, charts, number lines, word walls. Everything is bright and in color, there are pretty things hanging from the ceiling, the carpets are bright. Everything that we can modify and change ourselves we do as far as making our classroom spaces more pretty.”
Some teachers are using contact paper to make the dingy yellow windows look like stained glass. But their school isn’t the only one with problems. J. Keith Scroggins, the city school system’s chief operating officer, estimates it would cost $2.8 billion to bring all 188 buildings, many of them the oldest in the state, up to snuff.
“The oldest building that we have currently in use is Booker T. Washington Middle School. It was built in 1895. Pimlico Elementary Middle, the original part of the building was built in 1910. We have 16 buildings that were constructed in the 1920s.”
Scroggins says the cost of even simple things runs high; $230 million to install air conditioning in the 88 schools that don’t have it and upgrade the ones that do; $200 million to replace windows like the ones at Holabird Academy.
“So, anywhere you look, the price tag is going to be in the hundreds of millions in terms of improving all of our schools system wide.”
And all of this on an annual maintenance budget of about $50 million. The candidates in Baltimore’s Democratic mayoral primary all say they know how to solve this problem. Incumbent Stephanie Rawlings Blake talks about “right sizing” the school system; deciding which ones to close and which ones to keep open. And she’ll turn to the city’s as yet un-built slots parlor for revenue.
“I’ve pledged 10 percent of the slots revenue to school facilities improvement. It’s a stream of money and as you know different than project based capital improvement that can be used as payment on a larger amount of money to get us more funds to do the facilities work.”
Otis Rolley and State Senator Catherine Pugh talk about public-private partnerships, though in slightly different words. Pugh cites her partnership with Fred Lazarus, president of Maryland Institute College of Art, to open a design school this fall.
“We gotta say to this business and philanthropic community that if we’re going to educate our children properly we need their help. I think you gotta reach out and I know that we can. We’ve done it in the past; I know that we can do it in the future.”
Rolley says the city should leverage its assets to raise money thought bonds.
“It’s through working with the private sector, individuals to do joint ventures and it’s working with the philanthropic sector. Other cities are doing it. This is not revolutionary; it’s just revolutionary for Baltimore.”
Whatever the politicians do, Principal Ruby insists the teachers and school administrators haven’t given up. They’re fixing things involved with student safety first, then chipping away at everything else.
I’m Joel McCord, reporting in O’Donnell Heights, for 88.1, WYPR.
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