Grasmick rejects plan for school at museum

Lease is too expensive for city finances, she says

April 25, 2003|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick squashed a deal yesterday that would have allowed a city high school to operate out of the downtown Port Discovery building, leaving the future of both the school and a children's museum in question.

Grasmick refused to approve a lease agreement between the Baltimore school system and the Baltimore Children's Museum, saying the system's financial problems and lease terms made the deal irresponsible.

The move leaves 185 students without a place to go to school in September. Eighty-five freshmen attend the National Academy of Finance and Tourism, a magnet school, at Port Discovery and another 100 eighth-graders have already been accepted for next year.

The children's museum, which occupies part of Port Discovery and controls additional space there, has been financially strapped and was depending on rent money from the school.

"It's going to be devastating for the kids," said Sheila Steele, principal of the high school. She said her current students have been thriving in a small-school environment, with a 92 percent attendance rate and few behavior problems.

Small high schools nationwide are gaining popularity because of the extra support they provide, preventing low-income and minority students from falling through the cracks.

While Grasmick said she was happy with the academic program there, she felt the school system -- with a projected $35 million to $38 million deficit -- cannot afford the Port Discovery classroom space.

The lease would have required the system to pay $360,000 a year in rent initially, plus spend $8 million on building renovations and $180,000 in maintenance costs.

Grasmick said the city school system needs to make substantial improvements to its existing buildings.

"We certainly want to be favorable to the 300 students who will ultimately be part of the program," she said, referring to the total that would have eventually attended school at Port Discovery, "but we have to balance that against 95,000 students."

City schools chief Carmen V. Russo said in a statement that she is disappointed but understands Grasmick's concerns given the school system's fiscal situation.

Grasmick did not have a specific recommendation on where the students will go in the fall.

She did say that she eventually wants to see the school have its own building. But, for now, she acknowledged that relocating the students to Southwestern and Lake Clifton high schools is "one of the options being looked at." School system officials said they plan to find alternate locations for both the short and long term.

The school's classes for sophomores, juniors and seniors are now held at Southwestern and Lake Clifton, where Steele said circumstances have been less than ideal, as academy students mix with students in the general education program.

"You can't focus on instruction when the teachers are unhappy with the environment and the students have to worry about living from day to day," Steele said. Southwestern, for instance, has had at least a dozen arsons this year.

The plan was to send each new class of freshmen to the Port Discovery facility on Market Place until the academy's presence at Southwestern and Lake Clifton was phased out.

The school selects students based on grades and behavior in middle school and prepares them for careers in finance, information technology, and travel and tourism.

The lease deal came under fire recently because the museum rents the building from the city for $1 a year.

Critics said that taxpayers should not have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to rent space the city owns. Other opponents condemned the idea of locating the school near nightclubs, bars and other adult entertainment outlets. The Power Plant Live complex is adjacent to the school.

The lease was approved by the city school board in March. But it needed approval by state education officials, the city Board of Estimates and the state Board of Public Works. So even if Grasmick hadn't blocked the lease, one of the other entities could have.

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

The school's presence at Port Discovery has prompted two lawsuits, a taxpayer action and one filed by David Cordish, developer of Power Plant Live.

Zed Smith, vice president and partner at the Cordish Co., said in a statement yesterday that Grasmick "has saved the school system from its own folly, she has done the high school kids a favor, and she has put the city in a position where it can recap millions of dollars a year of new revenue from a building it owns by leasing the space to the highest and best taxpaying entity it can find."

But Alan M. Leberknight, Port Discovery's president and chief executive, lamented the end of what he called a "pioneering partnership" and said the museum will review its options to rent its excess space to commercial users.

Sun staff writers June Arney and Tanika White contributed to this article.

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