When I was a little kid walking the streets of Philadelphia with my parents, I remember keeping my eyes down on the sidewalk. I'd learned that rhyme that kids say, "step on a crack, and you'll break your mother's back," but that wasn't why I kept my gaze on the ground. Instead, it was about smell. Every so often, you'd step over a manhole cover or a grate that stank of sewer. It was a damp, clogged-toilet kind of smell, and I hated it. Every time I caught a whiff of that malodorous subterranean air, my throat would tighten and my stomach would heave. So I learned to look down and keep my distance - it wasn't a surefire solution but it did help.
This past Tuesday, I sat with one of our after-school students in the hall, and I felt a familiar tightening of my throat and heave of my stomach. There it was, that terrible smell, right in the elementary school hallway. Mind you, this wasn't the first time. For years Dickey Hill has been having plumbing issues, and especially in the last year the first floor has (in terms of odor, at least) given one the sense that it's actually a particular dirty sewer pipe masquerading as a school.
The administration, staff, parents, and partners at Dickey Hill have been working hard to try to get the sewer line fixed, but to no avail. The city says that the main lines are clear, so it isn't their problem. The district keeps fixing the ventilation fans but not the pipes. Whatever the excuse, the work isn't getting done.
Talking with the students about this has been sobering. They know that their school smells. They know that it could be fixed. They know that no one is fixing it - and so they think that they aren't worth the adults' time. They think they're not worthy of having a nice school. They think that they aren't a priority for the city or the state. The sad truth is that I think they're right.
It's not just the sewage smell. The school looks run down - not because of the staff or the students, but because the district hasn't been able to take care of it (or so many other schools) for years. The building should have five janitors but only has two, making deep cleaning nearly impossible. And I've had adults tell me that the lunches that they serve look so bad that they wouldn't even feed them to their pets.
Most people blame the district. I hear it all the time. The district gets tons of money. The district mismanages its funding. The district spends too much on the central office.
As I learned at a BUILD training on school funding on Monday night, all of this is false. While enrollment in Baltimore city has declined by 4%, the central office has been cut by 20% - resulting in one full-time employee being asked to process all of the leave requests for the entire district (more than 9,000 employees), and one and a half full time employees processing all certification requests. The school system is extensively audited, with no evidence of fiscal mismanagement found. And while city schools do get more funding from the state that some other districts, the school system is still drastically underfunded - to the tune of over $300 million.
Of course, it's legitimate to ask: why does the city get more state dollars than other districts? Remember that districts are largely funded based on property taxes. Even before you think about the impact of urban poverty on that number, consider how much land in a city is untaxed. There are all of the institutions that are non-profit/tax-exempt. It's not just religious organizations and schools - it's also many universities, hospitals, and government buildings, not to mention many music, arts, and historical organizations. So even before you add in poverty, cities collect less property tax (and therefor have less school funding) than other counties. And we as a society value cities having these amenities. We want cities to have good schools, good universities, good culture and exceptional hospitals. So that means that the state has to step in and fill the gap on school funding - so that cities can function the way we want them to without our children suffering.
But therein lies the rub. A lot of people forget that. A lot of people forget that this is part of the financial trade off for having a concentration of eds and meds and other non-profits in cities. They might think, "those aren't my kids, that's not my problem." They might think, "they collect property taxes, let them figure it out." They might think, "they got themselves into this mess, they can get themselves out of it." But even before poverty, it's just not that easy. The truth is, if Baltimore City schools fail, it's going to affect all of us - dramatically. So we all have an interest in making sure that they don't.
Our kids deserve better than what we're giving them right now. Right now, we're communicating to them that they don't matter, that they aren't worth our time or our money, and that we don't respect them. And so why should they respect themselves? Why should they respect others?
If we're serious when we say that we want to improve our city or our state; if we're serious when we say that we care about children; if we're serious when we say that we want to make a difference, then school funding in our cities in an issue that we must face head on - and we must do it now.