O'Malley seeks duty of schools' upkeep

City would be responsible for maintenance

mayor wants buildings improved

February 07, 2005|By Laura Vozzella and Laura Loh | Laura Vozzella and Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore mayor, who has his eye on the governor's mansion, also is angling for more modest real estate: 184 aging school buildings, many with leaky roofs, heating and air-conditioning woes, and lead-tainted drinking fountains.

Mayor Martin O'Malley announced in his State of the City address last week that he would like City Hall to assume responsibility for repairing and maintaining Baltimore school buildings.

"We believe we have the track record and management experience to really help improve our school facilities - not 10, not 20 years from now - this year," O'Malley said in an interview later in the week.

School officials have not yet accepted the offer, which O'Malley has quietly pushed for months. City and school leaders plan to meet today to discuss the matter.

Political observers say they are not surprised that a mayor who is considering a run for governor next year would want to add crumbling schoolhouses to his long to-do list. They say that's because it's easier to fix buildings than to cure the social pathologies behind some of the city's other troubles, such as murder and drug addiction.

In his 2001 State of the City address, O'Malley announced an "all-out crusade" to turn around the lives of troubled city children. The difference between that plan and the one unveiled last week, observers say, is the difference between changing human behavior and changing a light bulb.

"This won't relieve him of that responsibility [to address crime and drugs], but this will give him something else to accomplish," said Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "This is something literally concrete that he can do."

That is not to say that O'Malley, who first won office five years ago on a promise to cut the city's high murder rate, doesn't intend to keep up the fight against crime. Or that it would be easy for the cash-starved city to fix up Baltimore's schoolhouses.

It would take nearly $1 billion dollars to repair the facilities, according to studies commissioned by the school system in 1997 and 2000. That includes $604 million to correct physical deficiencies such as leaky roofs, and an additional $350 million to make them educationally adequate by state standards, with modern media centers and science labs.

Although some time has passed since the studies were completed, Carlton G. Epps, the system's chief operating officer, says the need is as great as ever.

"Some improvements were made, but as we repair things, we also [have] things we didn't repair ... that are now worse off," Epps said. "Considering we're making request [of the state] for $33 million [this year], and [we may] only get approval for $4 million in repairs, obviously, we're not gaining ground. We're losing ground each year."

Just how the city would help the schools has not been determined. No one is suggesting that the city is prepared to pour large amounts of cash into the effort, although it is possible that the city would lend workers for cleaning and repair jobs.

The city owns the buildings but has not managed them since 1997, when a city-state partnership was formed to oversee the financially strapped system.

In the past year, since the city bailed out the nearly insolvent school system with a $42 million loan, city work crews have helped with selected school projects, including repairs to drinking fountains that had been shut down because of lead in the water. Since last summer, O'Malley has marshaled thousands of volunteers to do repair work in schools under his Believe in Our Schools campaign.

"There was a 10-year plan for getting the water fountains back on," O'Malley said. "Now there's a one-year plan for getting the drinking fountains back on."

Under one scenario suggested by city officials, City Hall and other big municipal buildings that normally get cleaned five days a week would skip a day, so the custodial staff could work at schools instead. Under another plan, the school system would use its own money to beef up its cleaning and maintenance staff, but those workers would start reporting to city officials.

O'Malley is primarily offering his services as a municipal manager. The mayor has received national awards for CitiStat, his computerized system for monitoring the performance of city agencies.

The school system has adopted its own version of the system, called SchoolStat, that tracks work orders for repair jobs as well as a host of academic and financial matters. If city officials are allowed to oversee the facilities, they say, they would expand SchoolStat from what they describe as a small operation to one that would better document, prioritize and monitor buildings' needs.

City school board Vice Chairman Brian D. Morris said the board is eager to work with O'Malley to find a solution to its facilities problem.

"We're exploring every opportunity," Morris said. "For us, it's about additional resources. ... Wherever we can identify partnerships to accomplish our mission, we're exploring those things."

Some education advocates say they also welcome the city's involvement but question how much difference it would make.

"Clearly, the whole job cannot be done by efficiency alone," said Bebe Verdery, education director for the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU threatened to file a lawsuit last year over the "shocking" physical condition of city schools. The lawsuit has not come to pass, Verdery said, because the ACLU turned its attention to Annapolis, where it has been pushing for more state money for school facilities - an effort O'Malley also supports.

"The school buildings are by and large in deplorable shape, and they could benefit from better management," she said. "But they also need significant amounts of money."

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