City urged to oversee public school capital funds

Planning board suggests closure of some buildings

February 25, 2005|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

In the O'Malley administration's boldest step yet to improve aging and decrepit schools, the Baltimore Planning Commission demanded yesterday that city agencies - and not the school system - take control of city money spent on school construction and called for the closure of under-populated buildings.

The commission urged the city to develop within 90 days a plan to close "an appropriate number" of schools within 18 months and to sell those buildings and use the proceeds to fix up the remaining facilities.

Chairman Peter E. Auchincloss said the commission believes that the eight-year-old city/state partnership has "weakened rather than strengthened" the system's accountability. He suggested that Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration "aggressively pursue return of complete control of [city schools] to Baltimore City," but that suggestion was not part of the package of recommendations tied to spending.

The sweeping recommendations - made as part of the planning commission's approval of the capital budget for the coming year - followed the acknowledgement by school officials to commission members a month ago that $97 million in approved construction money had gone unspent over the past five years.

In urging that the city take greater control, Auchincloss accused the school system of failing to adjust to declining enrollment.

"The time has long passed to take meaningful action," Auchincloss said. "We must redirect wasted resources to improve the learning environments of our students."

A spokeswoman for the Baltimore City Public School System - which this week revealed that it had underspent operating funds by $30 million so far this year - said school officials would not comment until they had had a chance to review the commission's recommendations.

"We just feel we need a copy of what the commission is recommending before we make any comment," said spokeswoman Edie House.

The move comes after O'Malley orchestrated a citywide volunteer campaign this summer to spruce up dozens of school buildings, and less than a month after his State of the City speech, in which he called for City Hall to assume responsibility for day-to-day maintenance.

A spokeswoman for O'Malley said the mayor supports the recommendations of the commission, which includes a member of the mayor's staff and of the public works department.

"The mayor has been working with the school system to ensure that the capital dollars are used effectively to get the most bang for the bucks," said spokeswoman Raquel Guillory. "These recommendations are a part of that."

Guillory was noncommittal on Auchincloss' call for an end to the city/state partnership, which has a school board jointly appointed by the mayor and the governor and which has come under fire since last year's financial crisis.

"We're reviewing it," she said.

Within the past year, the O'Malley administration has taken several steps to assume greater responsibility over the school system.

For example, last spring, as the city school system neared insolvency, the mayor brushed aside an offer of state aid - and with it, the prospect for greater state control - and lent the system $42 million from city coffers.

City officials are also helping education officials adapt Baltimore's computerized CitiStat initiative - a heralded program of monitoring the performance of agencies - to the operation of the schools.

The O'Malley administration has recently been negotiating with school officials to have the city's Department of Public Works and its Bureau of General Services take over the day-to-day upkeep of city schools, contending that the agencies could do a better job maintaining buildings than the school system.

Auchincloss and other commission members said that yesterday's recommendations were not intended to prod the school system to turn over routine maintenance to the city.

"Nothing in this relates to emptying trash cans," Auchincloss said. "This is about roofs, boilers, windows and doors."

The commission's recommendations on oversight cover $34 million in city bond funds for school projects approved by voters in November for the next two fiscal years, plus an additional $56 million expected to be approved through 2011. It does not cover state-approved school construction money, expected to be about $100 million over the next two years.

The recommendations must be approved by the city's Board of Finance and the Board of Estimates - bodies on which the mayor has controlling votes - and by the City Council as part of the annual city budget to be adopted in June.

Under the commission's recommendations, any previously approved city bond money that has been unspent would also be transferred to public works and general services to be spent on school construction.

School officials said last month that there was about $38 million in unspent city bond money dating to 2000, out of a total of $97 million in unspent funds, said Thomas J. Stosur, a city planner who oversees capital requests.

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