Repairing schools

February 16, 2005

LAST YEAR, Mayor Martin O'Malley provided a city loan that helped Baltimore's school system cope with a $58 million deficit. Now he is looking to take over repairs and maintenance of nearly 200 school buildings, fulfilling an important need -- and putting himself out front as a friend of the schools. That is not likely to hurt him should he seek higher office, but the proof will be in how his efforts benefit students.

Those students are attending schools that are among the most dilapidated in the state, and studies conducted in the last eight years have identified nearly $1 billion in needed repairs at 184 schools. Some $600 million would help improve the physical plant, such as leaky roofs. An additional $350 million would help satisfy state standards of educational adequacy, such as the addition of modern media centers and science labs.

Mr. O'Malley wants the city to help the schools, and he's been looking to have an impact on how the system is managed. He has an ally in Brian D. Morris, vice chairman of the school board, who has embraced a willing partner. Improving facilities is one area where good management is an essential element of success.

Some of the areas where the city might help would be to develop standards for cleanliness and to help keep school buildings clean by diverting the custodial staff for city buildings and sending them to clean school buildings for the equivalent of one day a week. The city might also help turn on some of the many water fountains that are not functioning. A formal agreement is still being worked out and should be announced soon. It will likely address such details as who has on-site responsibility and what are the lines of accountability between school officials and city officials.

The agreement ought to also indicate how much money the city is able to devote and what it might hope to leverage from the business community for this effort. While better management of school buildings is important, additional financial resources are equally critical.

City Hall officials say they are not looking for a permanent arrangement, but for a time-limited and strategic use of their expertise to spruce up the schools and allow school officials to concentrate more on improving academic achievement. With those principles in mind, it sounds like a good bargain.

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