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Will Stephanie be the savior of city schools

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

House plan withstands amendments on its way to third reader for final passage

Yesterday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake witnessed her dream of a 'Better Baltimore' come one step closer to fruition, as her plan to increase the school construction funds for Baltimore City schools to be renovated and/or built survived several attempts at amendment during second reader on the House floor.

HB860, as amended by the House's Appropriations Committee, would create a Baltimore City School Construction Authority – which is now considered to be the Maryland Stadium Authority – authorizing the MSA to issue up to $1.1 billion in debt to finance school construction and revitalization projects in Baltimore City alone; subject to approval by the Board of Public Works and a multi-party MOU.

Instead of authorizing the initial block grant proposal submitted by the city leadership at the beginning of the session, the state would instead divert $20 million annually from lottery revenue to a special fund established to pay debt service on the bonds issued by the MSA; while phasing in a requirement for both Baltimore City government and its school system, to both pay $20 million-a-year to the fund and other related expenses.

The first of its kind legislation has been a hot-button topic amongst state legislators in Annapolis, and for awhile was seen as Dead On Arrival. However, thanks to the leadership of the city's legislative team, the city delegation – particularly House Chairman Curt Anderson – and particular members of the Md. Black Caucus; the bill survived several attempts by area legislators to keep city students in the dark-ages of learning facilities. Surviving all three amendment attempts yesterday on second reader, the bill passed comfortably onto third reader for final passage today – as the 141-members of the House of Delegates offer consideration to possibly one the most innovative school construction plans in state history.

However, some are still questioning whether building state-of-the-art schools will help an ailing school system, which they say are built on a curiculum predicated on our children failing? Others also question the bill's request to raise the statutory debt limit for the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners from $100 to $200 million, especially given the boards lack of compliance with community interests, and their willingness to go along with almost everything offered up by current city school commissioner, Andres Alonzo.

“If we're going to authorize such capital expenditures and debt limits, we certainly need to change over to either a fully-elected, or partially-elected hybrid school board,” says one community activist, who wished to remain anonymous based on this article “sounding way too favorable of the current administration”. However, say what you like about the Mayor, who refused to be called by her first name – Stephanie – while City Council President; she has seemingly now grown comfortable in her role as commander-in-chief of a major urban city, and looks dead-set on moving this city forward to her goal of attracting 10,000 new families within the next decade.

Amendments to the bill changed the mechanics of how the schools will be financed, eliminating the bonds used for 'debt to pay debt' and replacing it with a cash infusion; however, it still maintains the original intent of the bill and provides the first $1 billion for Phase I of the 10-year plan. And while the state's funds comes from lottery revenues, the city's funds would come from sources already identified by the Rawlings-Blake administration – such as last year's bottle tax, slots and table game proceeds, as well as other revenue identified for school construction.

Last year, the city enacted a five-cent per container bottle tax, repealing the 2010 2-cent container tax and raising it 3-cents beginning on July 1st of this year. The law, which exempts dairy products, non-dairy milk substitutes, beverages containing at least 10% natural fruit juice and any beverage container of two liters or larger; is estimated to generate approximately $10 million-a-year beginning in fiscal year 2014. Added to that would be provisions put in place to allocate funds from tables games and slot machines of the proposed casino set to open in Baltimore by mid-2014.

Based on current projections and excluding the 18% for the Pimlico Community Development Authority, Baltimore City will receive $15.5 million in local impact grants from gaming in fiscal 2015, $17.8 million in fiscal 2016, and $22.5 million in fiscal 2017, which includes an estimated $4.5 million from the first proceeds generated by table games. The total local impact grant is projected to increase to $23.5 million in fiscal 2018, including approximately $5.0 million from table games. Baltimore City has pledged a portion of local gaming revenues to school construction.

The MSA will oversee the financing and distribution of the funds allocated for the school construction plan, authorized to act as the coordinator for the construction plan, and empowered to act on behalf of Baltimore City Public Schools to acquire, construct and/or improve public school facilities. It has been estimated that 22 brand-new schools will be built in Baltimore City during Phase I of the plan, with almost the same amount of schools being renovated.

And while all school buildings will continue to be overseen and reviewed by the current state process with the Interagency Committee on School Construction (IAC) to ensure safeguard quality; their will be a four-party MOU process that details the roles and responsibilities of those involved, including Baltimore City, City Schools, the IAC and the Stadium Authority. The MSA will also be required to seek the state Board of Public Works approval before issuing bonds for school construction, and will have to report on the progress of the program to the Maryland General Assembly on a yearly basis.

Therefore, while the schools in Baltimore have consistently been the Achilles heel of the city, it looks like the plan to address the city's ailment may be up-to-par in the near future. Now the real work needs to get done, by shifting the amount of money prioritized for our children by the city council, to be equal to or comparable with that of public safety; as well as focusing on how we get the most bang for our buck when dealing with effective curriculums, teachers and parent involvement. But for now, Education Czar Stephanie Rawlings-Blake gets an A+ for her efforts that continue with the education-first agenda of the Dixon administration; yet is more detailed and serious than any other mayoral administration in the past 20-years, prior to 2007.

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