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Give City Council a bigger role in school funding

While many people returned from vacations over Memorial Day weekend to comfortable office buildings, young people across the city sat in sweltering classrooms as the outside heat index hovered around 105 degrees this week.

The danger of overheating classrooms, fewer than half of which are equipped with air-conditioning, prompted officials to close schools early Tuesday and Wednesday.

Also on Tuesday, the Baltimore City Council took a first step toward creating a modern, state-of-the-art school system when the council's Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee passed a bill I sponsored along with 1st District Councilman James Kraft. The charter amendment, "Non-lapsing Funds for Quality Schools," will help address the city's multibillion-dollar deficit for new school construction projects and the renovation of existing school facilities. This bill will also help us properly invest in our most precious resources: our youth.

It sounds cliché, but it's true — our youth are our future. We need to provide them with the tools necessary for their success in today's age of globalization. And it starts in the classroom. Baltimore City, according to a study of alternative financing by the school system, would need about $2.8 billion to adequately improve school facilities.

"High quality school facilities have measurable positive impact on rates of student learning, attendance and graduation," according to the school system's study. "Studies have shown that student achievement is stifled in bad school facilities, while dropout rates and absenteeism increase," the study continues. "Schools in poor condition … indicate to students that they and their education are not valued."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland painted the need for additional funding for school facilities in similarly stark language.

"With many buildings well over 40 years old — including some that date back to the nineteenth century — and other districts growing so quickly that there is rampant overcrowding, Maryland's public schools desperately need additional funding to replace and renovate their existing structures and erect new buildings to relieve overcrowding," according to the ACLU's website.

A number of educational experts and community leaders came to City Hall on Tuesday to testify in support of my education charter amendment, which will be considered by the full City Council on Monday at 5 p.m.

"This bill is a great first step, and once we have this authority, we can start discussing how to improve our schools," said Frank Patinella, an advocate with the ACLU.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a longtime advocate for improved public education and chairwoman of the council's education committee, said she thought the legislation was definitely a step in the right direction.

"We have an old, aging school system for a young, hopeful generation of children," Councilwoman Clarke said. "We all have to pitch in and change that."

Introduced Dec. 6, City Council Bill 10-0631 is a charter amendment that would provide the Baltimore City Council with the flexibility to meet the needs and demands of our school system. The legislation would provide the council with the authority to allocate funds specifically to support vital infrastructure for city schools — including air-conditioning. This bill is simply a tool that would allow the council a voice in utilizing city resources to improve our schools.

It would accomplish this in several ways. Money for the non-lapsing fund would come from three sources:

•Appropriations in the annual ordinances of estimates;

•Grants and donations made to the fund;

•Proceeds from fines, fees and programs as dedicated to the fund by ordinance. This represents an important change, as the City Council currently can raise revenue through fines, fees, etc., but has no legal say in how that revenue is appropriated.

This bill can complement the efforts of Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Andrés Alonso, who has been a tremendous advocate for our children and our educational system. If approved by the council and signed by the mayor, this bill would be placed on the ballot during the Nov. 8 general election.

If you support educational opportunities for Baltimore's youth, please ask your City Council representative to support Council Bill 10-0631.

Bernard C. "Jack" Young is president of the Baltimore City Council. His email is councilpresident@baltimorecity.gov.

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