Opinion: Bottle Tax Won’t Fix Imagination Deficit

As Baltimore’s Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake delivers a preliminary budget for the city today, the focus seems to be on efficiency. Changes to the city’s health budget, cuts to the liquor board, “cloud computing” for city offices and a laundry list of other initiatives are being introduced in an effort to bolster Baltimore City’s year over year budget issues. One thing left out of the text: the increased bottle tax proposal, which has been touted as a mechanism for enabling school reconstruction. If passed, the current 2 cent tax on bottled beverages would be raised to 5 cents. Politics / HL Menken enthusiast (and former school teacher) @MMMcDermottt has a few things to say on the matter. Enjoy!

Bottle Tax Won’t Fix Imagination Deficit

When it comes to fixing Baltimore’s crumbling school facilities, we don’t have a money problem. We’ve got an imagination problem. As usual, the answer to fixing anything education-related is to ask everyone to check their pants pockets for loose change. But it doesn’t work. Partly because of the inability to properly manage the money that actually comes in, and partly because no money in the world can fix the social ills that are at the root of a school’s failure.

I’ll concede that there’s a monumental difference between fixing school buildings and fixing schools. You can’t replace a window with teacher meetings. You’re not going to update the plumbing with student interventions. You need cold, hard cash. Or so it would seem.

If we’re to listen to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, school facilities need money for massive improvements, and the only way we’re going to get it is by raising the rate on the bottle tax – one of the most criticized taxes the city’s seen since, well, the last time the bottle tax was introduced (and then abolished after public uproar in ‘70s). But these are different times. If elections are any indication, Baltimore’s constituency is much more docile. It’s simply surrendered to the status quo.

Ask the average person on the street who their district council rep is. Or state delegate. Hell, their U.S. senator. The answer you’re likely get back is all the explanation you need for why someone like Rawlings-Blake makes it into office: Voters have simply given up on the process. When that happens, softheaded, uninspired legislation like the bottle tax happens. Now, Madame Mayor is grandstanding for a three-cent per bottle increase (more than doubling the existing tax).

To make matters worse, she’s reenacting the classic villain scene to do it, all but threatening to tie the success of our students to the train tracks if citizens don’t pony up more cash. The truth is, we don’t need more cash – not from a bottle tax anyway. We need more cash from conservation, from smarter facilities management, and through more creative solutions that break the city from its fetish for chewing on the teats of Baltimore’s remaining tax base.

The facts are there: the bottle tax missed its mark, pulling in nearly a million dollars less than it had proposed. The reasons? The city’s inability to adequately collect the taxes and, more logically, the fact that this town just isn’t that big. Thousands of residents live within a mile or two of the county lines. From Hamilton to West Hills, Mt. Washington to Morrell Park, people have options. And those with the sense, the inclination, or the means to use them, will.

Typical boneheaded politics. If a tax doesn’t work, let’s double or triple it. Ever watch a horse at the track slowly fall behind the pack? What’s the jockey do? He whips the glue out of it, hoping to nudge the poor beast to the finish line. Now, Rawlings-Blake is riding bareback upon the shoulders of Baltimore – and she’s swinging a riding crop fashioned from our own apathy.

Which leads me back to our schools and the chief problem. It’s not a lack of money, it’s lack of brainpower. Where is the mayor’s imagination? And how much of her inability to come up with solutions is tied to what I can only imagine is an ego as large and as unpleasant as a garbage truck clogging the side street of progress. She has many critics. But they’re smart critics with big ideas. Start with the contenders she defeated in the mayoral primary. Jody Landers’ property tax plan, modeled off of DC’s, was designed to bring property taxes in line with those in surrounding counties while severely penalizing slumlords and absent owners. And Otis Rolley’s private/public partnership school model – one that’s worked in places like DC and South Carolina – could have provided the seedling steps for not only financing a school facility rehabilitation program without painful tax increases, but also providing a steady stream of revenue for decades.

It’s a shame. Madame Mayor comes from good stock. Her father, Howard “Pete” Rawlings, was an innovator, named Policy Leader of the Year by the National Association of State Boards of Education in 2003, just before his passing. If Rawlings-Blake’s policies are any indication, that same thinking has apparently skipped a generation.

Now, Baltimore has a mayor whose claim to fame was keeping the city from collapsing into the Jones Falls during a snowstorm. She’s a maintainer, not an innovator. If we were to harness Rawlings-Blakes’ passion and imagination, we couldn’t power a potato clock. Even Sheila Dixon, for all her warts, had ideas. (Unfortunately, some of those ideas included how to use donated gift cards from the needy for personal shopping sprees.)

If we’re to improve schools – and school buildings – it won’t come through bottle taxes. It comes by tapping the talents of our students. Vocational programs are on the rise – as they should be: they may well be the one thing that ultimately resuscitates public education in America (but that’s a diatribe for another day). Put our children to work in service of school rebuilding. Under the tutelage of a master instructor, I see no reason why students couldn’t make general repairs to school buildings. Rejigger the HVAC system. Install a few windows. Repair crumbling drywall – all as part of their actual instruction. On-the-job training with benefits that extend far beyond their face value.

Of course, we’ll also have to break some bad habits; the school system is an abyss of waste. Even after the North Avenue housecleaning that Andres Alonso’s administration purportedly undertook when he first came on, I believe there’s a lack of accountability when it comes to cost savings within actual facilities. Drive by a school in the middle of the night. How many lights do you see ablaze within? Look at a school in the middle of winter. How many windows are wide-open? Simple conservation efforts could save the school system significantly.

Based on my mathematical prowess (I went to Baltimore City Public Schools, so bear with me), I’ve determined that if every one of the city’s 170+ schools were to turn off just one 60W light bulb for 12 hours every day, it could save the system roughly $4,000 a year in electricity.  If they did that with a hundred light bulbs, you’re looking at close to half a million dollars. Just by turning the lights off when not in use. Perhaps that’s what Mayor Rawlings-Blake is doing: She’s left the light bulb above her head off to conserve energy.