Donations sought for city schools

Fund drive will ask private foundations, businesses for help

`This is not a cookie sale'

Initial goal could be up to $75 million for renovations, repairs

September 03, 2001|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore school system is planning a drive to raise tens of millions of dollars from private foundations and businesses to help repair and renovate many long-neglected schools.

The goal of the capital fund-raising campaign, an unprecedented effort still in the planning stage, is to start chipping away at a backlog of more than $680 million in projects.

"Part of it is how to make a quantum leap in resources in a short period of time, so you can begin to take a giant bite out of the problem," said Donald Manekin, the school system's former interim chief operating officer who is now a consultant for special projects. "At the rate the system gets [school construction] money from the city and state, you couldn't catch up to the problem."

Carmen V. Russo, chief executive officer for Baltimore schools, said the initial fund-raising goal could be $50 million to $75 million, although other targets are being discussed.

"That's part of the conversation before you launch a campaign: What is an amount that's reasonable that makes sense to people?" she said. "And then you use that money wisely and show them what the results were."

In an initial effort last spring to court potential donors, school officials - including Manekin and Russo - took a small group of foundation and business leaders to visit three schools in disrepair.

The trip to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary, Lemmel Middle and Frederick Douglass High, arranged in collaboration with the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers, had a simple idea behind it: A picture is worth a thousand words.

"I don't have enough adjectives in my vocabulary to paint a realistic enough picture of the physical condition of the buildings and its impact on the quality of education," said Manekin. "It was a great tour, because neither Carmen [Russo] nor I had to open our mouths."

An outside study of the school system's 180 buildings during the 1997-1998 academic year found that 106 were in "poor" condition, with problems ranging from leaky roofs to broken plumbing. Many schools also lack up-to-date gymnasiums, science labs and libraries.

Some repairs and renovations have been made since the study was completed, but officials say that overall, maintenance needs have grown.

So, too, has the price tag - which dwarfs the $46.6 million in school construction money the state has allocated for Baltimore this year.

No launch date has been set for the district's fund-raising campaign, but city school board Vice Chairman C. William Struever said the "time is right" to start tapping the community for dollars.

With Russo and a new management team in place, Struever said, the school system is beginning to regain credibility.

There's a "growing recognition that the public schools actually are a good investment, and that the school system has shown an ability to spend money effectively and to make significant change for the better quickly," he said.

Struever said there is interest in turning schools into a "true neighborhood resource," where children can spend time in the afternoons and summers, particularly after the recent closure of five public library branches.

"That is part of the interest - the need to invest in neighborhood infrastructure," he said. "The schools can be a terrific way to stabilize communities."

School officials are considering the creation of a separate foundation to receive donations. They also might forge a partnership with groups such as the Baltimore Community Foundation or the Safe and Sound Campaign.

"We're going to just try to cast a wide net," Russo said. While much of the donations may come from foundations and businesses, she said, "you cannot count out individuals, because money adds up, whether it's a check for $100 or $1,000 or $10,000."

Among those who toured the three schools last spring, Manekin said, were officials from the Open Society Institute, the Knott Foundation, the Zanvyl and Isabelle Krieger Fund, the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, the Henry and Ruth Blaustein Rosenberg Foundation, and Comcast Corp.

"This is not a cookie sale," said Manekin of the need for capital dollars. "It's a big deal, and the community is looking for the same thoughtfulness in this kind of opportunity for the kids and the city that it's looking for in Carmen's high school reform or middle school reform."

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