O'Malley expands city's role in schools

He wants municipality to manage its contribution

April 28, 2005|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley moved closer to reasserting city control over Baltimore's public schools yesterday by taking partial oversight of school construction projects.

The action by the Board of Estimates, which is controlled by the mayor, comes a year after a high-profile showdown between O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. over the school system's fiscal crisis. That showdown, which ended with O'Malley engineering a $42 million city loan to the schools, began a push by the mayor to get the city more involved in school operations.

The debate over giving more power to city government revealed increasing tensions and miscommunication between O'Malley and schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland, who is resisting the administration's latest effort to take more power.

The five-member Board of Estimates approved the mayor's proposed $2.3 billion budget for fiscal 2006 yesterday with one critical caveat - that the city's Department of Public Works, not Copeland's school system, manage the $17 million in city bonds budgeted for school construction needs for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Copeland "vehemently" opposed the move in a letter to the board. Copeland wrote Tuesday that she should be given more time to continue to implement changes in how the system manages the capital budget, an effort that she said was going to be operational by July 1.

"I feel strongly that ceding management of the school system's capital funding to the Department of Public Works adds another cumbersome layer of bureaucracy and hinders the school system's ability to manage its own financial future," Copeland wrote.

The mayor's proposed budget, which must be approved by the City Council, would also give his administration control over $90 million in bonds for school construction over the next six years.

"What we're trying to do is make sure the dollars get into our school buildings in the quickest and most effective manner possible to make sure we improve the learning environment for as many children as possible," O'Malley said.

In the past, the school system has managed the capital budget, which is financed by city and state bonds. But in January, city planners raised concerns about that management when they learned that the system had not spent about $97 million in approved construction money from the state and city over the past five years. Those unused funds included $38 million in city bonds.

The city's planning commission sent Copeland a 10-point letter detailing, among other things, how the school system spends - or doesn't spend - capital money. The board's action yesterday essentially carried out the planning commission's recommendation that the school system cease managing city funds.

"To date, we have not gotten a satisfactory answer to the 10 points we raised," Planning Director Otis Rolley III told the board.

The commission's revelations added fuel to O'Malley's plan to reassert city hall's authority over the system, which it partially gave up in 1997 in exchange for a city-state partnership. His efforts began a year ago when the city bailed the school system out of its financial crisis with a $42 million loan. Ehrlich and O'Malley had spent days trying to negotiate a state-financed rescue plan, but the mayor abruptly came up with his city plan when the governor insisted on greater state control.

Since then, the city has taken partial responsibility for the day-to-day maintenance of dilapidated schools, helped to create and install better financial accountability policies, and spearheaded a volunteer effort that made about $5 million in building improvements this school year.

O'Malley, who meets weekly with the school system's administration as part of that effort, said he was surprised to learn of Copeland's opposition because he had met with her Monday.

"I spend an hour of my time every week with the school command staff, and no one has said anything to me," he said testily at the board's meeting. "It's very passively aggressively strange."

Board Chairwoman and Council President Sheila Dixon said she also was surprised at Copeland's opposition because the move has been under consideration since January. "There's frustration now at all levels," she said.

Alexandra M. Hughes, who spoke to the board for Copeland, said the schools chief did not know that the board was going to vote on the proposal. During the meeting, she also said the state may take issue with the city's action.

O'Malley snapped at the suggestion and said that would be the state's "prerogative," but that the city's prerogative was to act quickly to improve schools.

"For five years, you've been getting worse, not better," O'Malley said.

State education officials did not respond to requests for comment.

O'Malley said later that a critical part of his administration's increased involvement in city schools is to continue to improve communication with Copeland.

"Part of this is working at a more effective relationship between the administration of the school system and the administration of the city," O'Malley said.

Yesterday those communications appeared to break down. Hughes and schools spokeswoman Edie House said they did not know how the Department of Public Works will administer construction bonds.

Public Works Director George L. Winfield and O'Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said the city would be involved in every aspect of construction projects.

Winfield emphasized that the work would be done in cooperation with the school system, but that the city might hire consultants and contractors to "come up with credible projects."

"There is no intent to displace anyone in the school system," Winfield said. "We need to get projects that have been delayed for a long period of time moving forward."

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