All of us can agree that the findings of a recent state audit of the Baltimore City school system are unacceptable. There is no excuse for wasting money, and the burden is now on the city schools leadership to fix the problems.
While we monitor that progress, it's time to take a step back and consider how to move forward to benefit our kids. We cannot allow these financial missteps to sidetrack us from providing high-quality educational environments for our children.
Concerns by some elected leaders about the city school system's ability to handle its finances could cloud the prospects of an important piece of legislation that will be considered by the General Assembly early next year — a measure that would allow us to begin rebuilding our aging and inadequate school buildings. Today, there are more than $2 billion in capital projects needed in the city's public schools.
If you have children who attend public schools, or you teach or volunteer there, then you know the conditions: stifling heat in the summer, unconscionably cold classrooms in the winter, no doors on bathroom stalls, poor lighting, inadequate science labs, and more. No child should be subjected to such conditions.
While facilities are not the only factor in school improvement, they are a critical key to educational success. Education experts agree that the physical space where students learn is the "third teacher" in education, after the classroom instructor and the parents. Tragically, the current message this third teacher sends to kids in most of our schools is, we don't care about your future or your education.
State and city officials are weighing options for how to best address these needs in our schools and ensure fiscal responsibility. One option is to create a state chartered non profit organization. Another is to establish a new independent public authority.
The new organization would repay the bonds with existing revenue streams, including state school construction funds, revenues from the recent bottle tax increase, and other sources. This new approach, already successful in other school districts across the nation, would allow us to make an enormous dent in the schools' capital construction needs now — when borrowing costs are extremely low — and discard the nickel-and-dime approach to school construction that we've used for decades. (Learn more about the issue at transformbaltimore.org.)
Our current approach not only fails to address significant needs, it can be foolish, sometimes resulting in new boilers placed in drafty buildings, or new air conditioning installed in crumbling classrooms.
If we do decide to set up a new organization, it would oversee the work and handle the money, not the city school system administration.
We've seen this work with such projects as the stadium complex and the Hippodrome Theater, as well as with entire school systems in other regions. Many of Baltimore's political, business and education leaders have been part of these arrangements before. They know that safeguards will guarantee transparency and oversight and address the very concerns that have been raised in recent weeks.
What angers us in the current debate is how quickly the needs of our children are lost to the selfish politics of the moment. We have seen time and again in Baltimore a civic reflex that stifles action when it is most badly needed. Excuses are easy to find.
We can't fix the schools because we don't have the money.
We can't fix the schools because we can't trust North Avenue.
We can't fix the schools because …fill in the blank.
Leadership is not about excuses. It is about bringing people together to achieve real progress around the significant needs of our children. It's time to stop focusing on the "why nots" and get behind a great idea that will bring meaningful improvement to our schools — and bring it now, not decades down the road.
Yes, we must demand accountability and assurances that money is spent wisely.
But, we also must demand action that will allow us to continue building on the progress that has been apparent in city schools the past several years.
An amazing coalition made up of the ACLU of Maryland, the Baltimore Education Coalition, BUILD and many schools, parents, teachers, churches and community groups has come together not to point out what we can't do, but to pledge our support of our city's greatest resource: our children.
Now is the time to embrace progress and find solutions — not fall back on excuses.
The authors are clergy co-chairs of BUILD, Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development. Rev. Glenna Reed Huber is pastor of Holy Nativity Episcopal Church; her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Rev. Foster Connors is pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church; his email address is email@example.com.