Museum rental for school approved

Port Discovery would get $360,000 a year for space

Other city, state panels must OK

March 26, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

At a meeting packed with students and supporters, the Baltimore school board voted last night to pay Port Discovery $360,000 a year to rent space in the downtown Market Place building for an innovative new high school focused on tourism, technology and finance.

The lease deal had come under fire recently because Port Discovery, a money-losing children's museum, leases the building from the city for $1 a year. Critics have said that taxpayers should not have to pay $360,000 a year in rent - plus $180,000 in operating costs - for space the city owns. Other opponents who spoke last night said the location - near nightclubs, bars and other adult entertainment outlets - is inappropriate for high school students.

The school board vote is not the last hurdle for the deal, since the agreement must still be approved by the State Board of Education, the city Board of Estimates and the state Board of Public Works.

State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor who is on the Board of Public Works, has called the arrangement "outrageous" and said he would not sign off on it.

The school system is paying Port Discovery $75,000 a year for about 6,000 square feet of space occupied by the National Academy Foundation School for Finance, Tourism and Technology, a magnet high school that enrolls only freshmen.

School officials plan to expand the school by one grade each year as part of the lease voted on last night.

About half the school's 95 freshmen showed up with colorful posters and carefully written speeches imploring board members - and the public - to back their staying in the building.

"The downtown location is significant," said Anthony Taylor, president of the school's student government, "because we will hopefully be working in the business sector of the city one day."

Port Discovery's lease with the city - which runs until the year 2097, with renewals - requires it to seek Board of Estimates approval before subletting large amounts of space. It also requires the building to be operated as a museum.

The Board of Estimates could consider the deal as early as today.

Since its inception five years ago, the award-winning children's museum has struggled financially, and has never met attendance projections.

Under the lease agreement, renovations would increase available space in the building from 80,000 square feet to 100,000 square feet, with the school using up to 55,000 square feet of that. The school would continue adding grades each year, leading to a total estimated enrollment of 400 in 2005. Its rent payments would be tied to inflation.

School system Chief Operating Officer Mark Smolarz said last night that the deal with Port Discovery - which has the school system paying about $6 a square foot for rented space - is a relative bargain, considering the ideal location.

Smolarz had real estate agents give a report to the school board detailing how difficult it was to find a space that was affordable, practical and available for the school's particular needs.

Ultimately, Smolarz said, Port Discovery offered the best deal.

"Clearly, $540,000 is not a lot for a flagship in the downtown area," he said.

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