The city Planning Commission narrowly approved yesterday the school system's construction and renovation plan for the next five years, but chastised school officials for doing too little to fix decrepit buildings and for failing to provide a clear financial accounting of construction projects.
During an emotional hearing, the commission also criticized school officials for not coming up with alternative ways to fix dilapidated schools, such as the volunteer campaign organized this summer by Mayor Martin O'Malley's office to paint and repair school buildings.
"The Planning Commission finds it appalling that [Baltimore public schools] cannot find similar creative approaches ... to address systemic concerns," said Chairman Peter E. Auchincloss, who despite reservations cast one of five votes in favor of the system's plan. Four commission members voted against the plan, which includes spending more than $240 million.
Auchincloss, a commission member for the past 10 years, said he has continually been frustrated by the system's mismanagement of its capital funds. Over the years, the money needed to repair city schools has climbed to an estimated $1 billion.
The commission's repeated requests for a full accounting of capital projects undertaken by the school system have "never materialized in anything even approaching an adequate response," Auchincloss said.
He said the commission considered rejecting the plan to send school officials a "wake-up call," but wanted to give the system one last chance for the sake of students.
Several commissioners expressed disbelief and anger that school officials have not been able to get a handle on urgent problems in some school buildings, such as those described by Cherie Rippetoe, the mother of three Violetville Elementary/Middle School pupils.
Rippetoe wept as she testified that the school has filthy carpets and rats, and that children sometimes have to stand in the rain waiting to use a portable restroom.
"We can't live like this," commission member Matthews Wright said angrily.
Carlton Epps, the system's chief operating officer, said after the hearing that the current administration inherited many construction problems and is working to get things in order.