Baltimore Education Advocates Launch Campaign to Renovate School Facilities

Baltimore’s education advocates launched a campaign on August 18th that seeks to galvanize the entire city around the the issue of its dilapidated school facilities.

The campaign, called “Transform Baltimore,” is being sponsored by the ACLU of Maryland and members of the Baltimore Education Coalition, who said that while lawmakers continue to devise a viable plan to meet the city’s $2.8 billion need for renovations and upgrades, the city needed a platform for action.

The campaign will be driven by a new website, www.TransformBaltimore.org, which went live on Thursday at a kick-off event at Booker T. Washington Middle School. The school’s new, state-of-the-art media center served as the backdrop for advocacy groups and educators to illustrate the learning environment that all city students deserve.

“As our students walk into a building that is clean and new, our expectations are elevated,” said Euna McGruder, principal of Booker T., which will become an arts school next year. McGruder said that the historic city school still serves as a pillar of the community due to its rich history, but “we believe that facilities must be able to support our students in the 21st century.”

The website will serve as a platform for dialogue and organization, ACLU officials said. The first major effort under the campaign will be to organize parents at the 50 upcoming back-to-school nights in September.

The site outlines the campaign’s goals, which are based on the premise that the city and state could tackle the city’s facilities problems with current revenue streams. The website identifies three goals: leverage current dollars, increase the city’s funding support, and increase the state’s funding support. The goals are based on accomplishments in other states, including Georgia and Florida.

The issue of the city-owned school facilities—70 percent of which are in poor and hazardous conditions—has become a hot-button issue in the past year, since the ACLU released a report that outlined the multi-billion-dollar need. The findings were underscored by the increase in school closures in the past year. City school officials were forced to close 45 schools for a total of 34 1/2 days – five in June alone for unbearable heat — for infrastructure issues.

Those in the education community have pushed the issue to the forefront of this year’s mayoral election, and candidates have sounded off on the issues in the media and debates. On August 25, the Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development will engage candidates in a discussion about school facilities, which the organization of clergy members have identified as their foremost campaign issue this year.

In response to the report released by the ACLU last year, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake charged a task force with finding revenue streams to support the repairs, renovations or rebuilding of school facilities. The task force report, due out in February, has yet to be released.

Despite lawmakers’ lip service and impending efforts, “it’s not enough, and not fast enough for the teachers and students who will come back to decrepit buildings in two weeks,” said Bebe Verdery, director of ACLU of Maryland's Education Reform Project.

Verdery said that the campaign is not just about action “between now and the mayoral election. This is about—until we can get it done.”

Part of the campaign's mission is to continue bringing attention to the abysmal conditions that city students and educators have to endure every day. On the site, the ACLU and organizations of the BEC have posted documents, maps and videos that illustrate the infrastructure needs in city schools. The campaign will focus on the impact the facilities issue has on not only learning environments, but communities.

Lisa Boyce of the Greater Homewood Community Corp., another partner of the new Transform Baltimore project, said that neglecting to update school facilities is "poor long-term planning" for the city. She said that "if schools in our neighborhood are not a magnet, people leave the city."

"We don't need another reason for parents to leave our schools--or worse--never give them a chance," Boyce said.

On hand Thursday were students and teachers who offered testimony about the conditions in schools. “The conditions of the facilities sends a strong message to me about what our government leaders think about our education,” said Morgan Turner-Cohen, a student at the Baltimore Freedom Academy.

Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke attended the event Thursday, and said she supported the campaign’s effort to put more pressure on her and her colleagues.

Clarke, who heads the council’s education committee, said that the school system’s current administration has brought more integrity to the process of improving school facilities than in years past, and deserves support in their efforts to improve the city-owned school buildings.

In the past four years, the school system has spent more money on school facility improvements than in the previous two decades, and the first brand new school facility will be built in the city since 1998.

Clarke said the school system's current operations administration has been able to provide the council with the guidance it needs to seek the power to designate tax payer funding to school facilities in a referendum next fall.

A similar bill was proposed by City Council President Bernard "Jack" Young in May, but the bill's initial attempt to allow the council to earmark funding from the city budget failed.

The amended bill did however produce a referendum, which will appear on the city's November ballot, to allow the council to set up a fund for school facilities with grants and donations. It's an unprescedented measure, though limited, that's been lauded as a first step in a long journey to finding a solution that will tackle the problem in the next decade.

Clarke said that she looks forward to working with a $1.4 million review that's underway in the school system to itemize the needs of every school facility in the city.

“We have deferred for generations and we have reached a crisis point,” Clarke said. "We have a shopping list, which is a great accomplishment. Let's go shopping.