City College's extra money a necessity, principal says

April 18, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

JOE WILSON, principal of Baltimore City College, sat at the table, adorned nattily in the official school tie: black and orange slanted stripes, with an emblem of the immediately recognizable Castle on the Hill embedded in the orange.

Wilson recalled when he came to City, "about five years and 15 days ago," he said in an April 12 interview.

"I found on arrival a building almost unusable," Wilson remembered. "The roof was falling in. Air and water were blowing through the windows. The morale of the staff and students reflected they were living in a building with no heat."

The rooms hadn't been painted in 20 to 30 years, the plumbing was so bad students had to bring bottled water for drinking, and the city health department closed the school's pool. Wilson said the 71-year-old building, though improved, is still in constant need of repair.

"It's now a decent place to be," Wilson said. "It's not demoralizing. But it's not the lap of luxury, by any stretch." Plaster still peels from a stairwell on the school's western end, a sign that water still leaks in when it rains.

Part of the $3.3 million set-aside awarded City in its new budget - an allocation the school system, in exquisite bureaucratese, calls the "resources beyond the staffing formula" - is used for building maintenance and repair.

Students and officials at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and Western High School have protested the set-aside and charged that School funds are not distributed equitably. City's defenders say the extra money is necessary, and not just for the continuing upkeep of the building.

"$800,000 of it is spent before we even get it," Wilson said. The money is deducted! because City is charged for services that other schools get for free. For example, the Mass Transit Administration sends buses to the Poly-Western complex to drop off and pick up students. MTA buses also drop off and pick up students at City, but the school has to pay the MTA nearly $200,000 for the pnvilege. City pays Baltimore Gas and Electric Co $285,000 for utilities that other schools use for free. An additional $300,000 is spent for food services.

"We don't perceive ourselves to be in a fight with anybody," Wilson said of the school funding issue, the protests of faculty and administrators at Poly and Western notwithstanding.

Calvin Anderson, a member of City's 1963 class and a member of the school's alumni association, said City students went before the state legislature, the City Council and the school board several years ago to suggest that some of the money used to build PSINet Stadium be divided evenly among all city schools. The students, Anderson said, even hoped for help from other schools.

"We looked around for support," Anderson recalled. "But all I saw was black and orange."

Poly and Western staff members weren't satisfied with Baltimore schools chief Robert Booker's explanation of City's extra funding, saying he discussed only the need for more custodial service. But Wilson said that though he didn't attend the school board meeting on equity in funding, he heard that Booker's justification for extra money was more detailed.

"Booker said that reducing funding would put City back in the position that led to its decline," Wilson claimed.

That was the decline that started in the early 1990s, not the one that began in the 1970s that led to a renovation of the school and a new curriculum in 1978. When Wilson took over, a deteriorating building was the least of his problems. The school had lost 500 students from 1989 to 1994. The enrollment was about 850 students. City had trouble attracting students not only because of a wreck of a building - the Poly students who derisively called City "the dump on the hump" were closer to the truth than they realized - but because the campus was in a high-crime area.

"We actually had students accosted at the bus stop," Anderson said.

City now uses part of the $2.5 million - that $3.3 million "resources beyond the staffing formula" minus the $800,000 the school must spend - to beef up security Off-duty Baltimore police officers patrol the halls and surrounding bus stops. They're on duty as late as 8 p.m., when students involved in extracurricular activities leave school to make their way home.

There are additional school programs that use money from the $2.5 million - the International Baccalaureate Program, the band and choir, after-school tutoring, a summer math academy and a summer scholars program designed for students whose grades fall just shy of the 80 average required for admittance to City - but Wilson said the bulk of the money goes to reducing class sizes and repairing the building.

Wilson is right. There should be no fight between City and Poly-Western over funding. If we can find hundreds of millions to build PSINet Stadium, we should find a few million for some "resources beyond the staffing formula" for Poly and Western - and the city's much maligned comprehensive high schools - as well.

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