A bottle tax to raise money for Baltimore’s dilapidated city schools has landed at the City Council, with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s announcement Monday of the details of her much-anticipated plan to address the problem.
At a news conference held at one of those schools, Johnston Square Elementary, Rawlings-Blake preempted critics who might knock her proposal for being inadequate to the task at hand.
“Some will say, okay, you’re not fixing the entire problem immediately” and conclude it’s not worth doing at all, she said. She chided those critics, saying “rarely, if ever, do they offer solutions. “
“Today, I’m offering a physically sound solution,” Rawlings-Blake said. “I want to invest in the schools now, not next month or next year.”
If her approach were to yield the promised funding, it would represent a fraction of the need. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has estimated that repairing or replacing the run-down school facilities would cost $2.8 billion.
The administration’s proposed bottle tax hike, from two to five cents, would generate $10 million a year, her office estimates. Those funds, combined with other revenue raised through the mayor’s three-part plan, would allow schools to secure more than $300 million in bonds, according to her administration’s estimates.
But the groups who have been calling most vocally for school construction money showed up yesterday to applaud Rawlings-Blake for taking “a first step.”
“It’s Not Nothing”
“BUILD stands with the Mayor and calls on the City Council to pass the bottle tax as a first step along with other sources of funding to leverage the full $2.8 billion needed to fix our schools through a bond,” said Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, co-chair of the interfaith group (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development.)
BUILD members wearing their trademark teal-colored tee shirts stood, literally, with Rawlings-Blake, as she faced the media. Among them was Terra Hiltner, a librarian at Holabird Academy who has worked at Johnston Square. Before the news conference, Hiltner pointed to the school cafeteria windows, the kind that push out and have no screens.
“If you want to cool it off in there you have to open them. But then bugs come in,” she said. “Kids can’t concentrate.”
She said ceiling tiles are falling down, there is no air conditioning on the second floor except in the library and in the cafeteria “chunks of chairs are missing.” Portable buildings house four classrooms and a food pantry, she added, and students have to go out in the wind, rain and snow to go from their classrooms to the cafeteria or library.
Students pressed their faces to the grimy, cloudy windows to watch the gaggle of media and officials outside.
Also present at the news conference were representatives of Transform Baltimore and the Baltimore Education Coalition (BEC), including Bebe Verdery, director of the ACLU of Maryland’s Education Reform Project.
Verdery also praised Rawlings-Blake for taking action, even though the Mayor’s plan is much less ambitious than the financing strategy Verdery’s coalition is proposing, modeled on one used successfully in Greenville, S.C.
“It’s not nothing,” Verdery said. “That $10 million (in bottle tax revenue) could be used to leverage $155 million.
Verdery said her group has expressed concern to Rawlings-Blake that the revenue might not be a dependable funding source, since the council could bow to political pressure and repeal the tax increase.
“It might be something that could be handled with a charter amendment,” Verdery said. “The administration understands what we’re saying here. They are talking to us about it.”
Lobbyists Stand Across the Street
As if to underline the political precariousness of the mayor’s plan, a cluster of beverage industry lobbyists stood across the street from the school observing the news conference.
Ellen Valentino, of the Maryland, D.C., Delaware Beverage Association, said the two-cent city bottle tax imposed last year after months of debate pushes shoppers into surrounding counties without the tax.
Rawlings-Blake, who said at the time the revenue was needed to save city jobs and continue city services, had originally proposed a 4-cent tax.
The other sources of revenue Rawlings-Blake proposes to use include 10 percent of city revenue from the proposed slots casino near the stadiums, an estimated $1.2 million, and $12 million from in savings from changes in the city’s contribution to school system costs.
Rawlings-Blake said the problem of crumbling school facilities is serious: “We have reached a breaking point, and it is time to act now.”