Stop the blame game over the state of Baltimore schools
The Baltimore Sun
Bill Ferguson, Jess Gartner
As a state senator and the CEO of an education finance company, respectively, we have independently expressed healthy doses of frustration and criticism over local school spending and state funding. But the problems we are witnessing in Baltimore this year with school building infrastructure are far bigger and older than the recent tenure of schools CEO Sonja Santelises or the first term of Gov. Larry Hogan. Continuing to volley the blame of decades of accumulated underinvestment serves no one — especially not city students.
The lack of air-conditioning is just the latest in a series of mismanagement accusations that are wildly decontextualized from reality and data. Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem solved by popping over to Home Depot to pick up a few window units. Too many city schools teachers and parents have tried this option, only to blow fuses in the electric grids of these mid-century buildings that were built before AC window-units were invented.
A 2011 study concluded that Baltimore City schools required a total investment of $2.4 billion (closer to $3 billion today, adjusted for inflation) to meet minimum public school facilities standards, with upgraded electric grids, heating, cooling, roofing and safe drinking water. The $1 billion authorized in the 2013 legislative effort establishing the 21st Century School Facilities Initiative aims to tackle the first tranche of these improvements by 2021, first targeting buildings with the most egregious challenges that required entire rebuilds versus renovations or improvements. Yet, even with the construction of 26 to 28 new facilities, roughly $2 billion in unmet facilities needs will persist — resulting in predictable burst pipes, leaky roofs, broken heating systems and un-air-conditioned buildings.
Superintendent Santelises inherited a school system with the oldest buildings in the state and only a fraction of the resources required to maintain them over the better part of a decade. This puts city schools’ administration in a constant lose-lose situation: If they install short-term fixes like window units, they risk frying schools’ electric grids, which would be an additional emergency maintenance cost and increase the overall cost of improvements; people would cry incompetence and waste. If they take time to pursue the best, safest, most cost-effective long-term solutions, the problem persists in the short-term, and school officials look like they’re sitting on their hands; people cry incompetence and mismanagement. In either case, resources get deployed on the basis of immediate crises, while potentially higher priority repairs to roofs, fire systems, drinking water and critical infrastructure face longer deferrals and higher risks.
Governor Hogan has only been in office for four years and cannot be blamed for the decades of underinvestment that preceded him under primarily Democratic governors. Rather than point fingers at Baltimore City Public Schools for the accumulation of problems they are actively dealing with, Governor Hogan should work with Baltimore officials to develop solutions. Specifically, Governor Hogan could work with legislators to modify the regulations around capital improvement funds that consistently disadvantage poorer districts like Baltimore in order to allow more flexibility with funding. Or the governor could approach the crisis in the same way the administration has approached Hurricane Florence: Issue an executive order declaring a state of emergency and rapidly deploy state resources to fix the problem.
While cooler temperatures are, we hope, on the horizon, making AC deficiencies in schools less urgent, a failure to offer new solutions for the city's facilities challenges right now will result in a fresh round of outrage when our first freeze hits. As deficient boilers break and failing windows leak, city schools will face predictable accusations of mismanagement. A problem decades in the making will not be resolved by political infighting, it will only be fixed with action. Instead of shuffling from one crisis to the next, let's do the hard work of collaboratively solving problems.
We can all agree that the state of Baltimore schools is unacceptable for students, educators, families and communities. Let's also agree that present officials deserve a clean slate that assumes the best of their abilities as they work to undo decades of disinvestment and injustice. We have the expertise, resources, and ability to right historical wrongs. The only remaining question is whether we have the political will to get the job done.
Bill Ferguson (email@example.com) represents Baltimore City in the Senate of Maryland's 46th Legislative District. Jess Gartner (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Baltimore City and is the CEO & Founder of Allovue, a Baltimore-based education company that supports school districts across the nation in budgeting and managing resources.