Borrowing some mojo from the Superbowl-winning Ravens, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake addressed a charged-up, cheering crowd in Annapolis last night rallying for funding for dilapidated city schools.
Looking out on the sea of city residents outside the Statehouse (a crowd organizers estimated at more than 3,000) the mayor picked up on the tune she heard some singing: the football team’s unofficial theme song this year, “Seven Nation Army.”
“The chant that got us to the Lombardi Trophy, that’s the same chant that’s going to get this bill passed!” she said, prompting a roar from the crowd.
The bill in question would create an annual $32 million block grant in the budget for city school building upgrades, locking in state funding Baltimore already receives so that it can be used to leverage bonds to pay for the massive amounts needed.
The block grant bill is the foundation of the advocates’ 10-year plan to renovate or replace the city’s aging school buildings, with their leaking pipes, malfunctioning boilers, grimy windows, lack of air conditioning, lack of modern science labs and computers and other flaws.
Total needs are estimated at a daunting $2.4 billion.
The block grant measure is intended to create a funding stream for the first five years of the plan. After months of pep rallies and strategy sessions in Baltimore, last night’s raucous rally marked the Annapolis phase of the advocates campaign.
Students, teachers, parents and more than a thousand members of faith groups poured out of over 60 school buses and into the state capital.
The Politics: Busch but no Miller
The lineup of elected officials standing before them on the dais last night said much about where the measure stands politically.
Members of the Baltimore City Council were there, as were members of the city’s delegation to Annapolis, who say the school funding bill is their top priority.
Also addressing the crowd were Lt. Governor Anthony Brown and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who noted that most city schools have not been renovated since the 1950s, when he attended one. “It’s too long to wait for new schools,” Busch said.
“Whether you’re educated in Bethesda or Chevy Chase or Baltimore City, our kids deserve a world class education,” Brown said.
A couple of Prince George’s County legislators were up there as well, but the most important one – Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller – was not.
Miller has been skeptical about the plan and lawmakers from other parts of the state have also expressed doubts about whether the city can properly manage the massive project.
As if to reassure them, organizers brought up speakers “from the foundation and corporate community,” including Mark R. Fetting, until recently CEO and chairman of Legg Mason Inc.
Overhauling Baltimore’s crumbling public school would benefit the city and the state, Fetting said, adding “we need to make sure it’s done with fiscal discipline . . . and we can do it.”
Channeling Her Inner Ed Reed
But Rawlings-Blake was clearly the chief applause-getter last night.
After initially hanging back on the school construction initiative (mounted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and fellow members of a broad-based alliance, the Baltimore Education Coalition), the mayor is now giving it her full-throated support.
“When they said Baltimore needed to put more skin in the game, we did it,” she said last night, noting her success in winning passage of a city bottle-tax to generate dedicated school repair funds that will be used to match the state’s contribution.
“When the confetti falls on sine die on the last day of session,” the mayor vowed, “we will have a deal for Baltimore city schools.”
To lawmakers from outside Baltimore who would deny city children in Maryland’s poorest jurisdiction equal school facilities, she had this message: “look in the mirror.”
And as if that wasn’t enough, she closed by singing “Seven Nation Army” to the crowd, who needed only a half-a-bar to recognize it and join in.
For members of this crowd, which pretty much blanketed Lawyers Mall, there was no doubting, no hanging back.
“We need 21st Century schools,” said Betty Baze, of Cherry Hill, who volunteers her time to tutor pre-schoolers there. Baze praised the school staff and fellow tutors (from AmeriCorps and AARP) but said the conditions in the building are deplorable.
“When it’s so hot in the summer, when you have to bundle up inside the classroom in the winter, when you can’t drink from the water fountains, when the bathroom plumbing is constantly backed up, you can’t learn,” said Baze, who attended Arundel Elementary School as a child in the 1950s and finds it “much different, much deteriorated” today.
Along with the adult speakers, the organizers brought up schoolchildren who performed music-and-dance numbers (“Pass that bill!” sang the City Springs Stompers) and described how poor conditions in their schools might hold them back.
(To achieve his dream of getting admitted to MIT, a Roland Park Elementary student said, “I need great computers and great computer labs.”)
“The water is always backing up in the bathrooms, the windows are dark and dirty, the paint is chipping down from the ceiling,” said Jessica Good, who came to Annapolis in hopes of bringing about change to Gwynn’s Falls Elementary Middle School. “It’s a horrible environment.”
Good said her parents went to the school, her five-year-old daughter attends the school and she went there as well.
“It’s been those bad conditions building up over three generations,” she said. “It’s overdue for a change.”