Capital capacity

April 29, 2005

WHAT'S GOING on between City Hall and Baltimore's school system?

Mayor Martin O'Malley wants more control over the system's capital budget, ostensibly while schools CEO Bonnie S. Copeland and her staff get their act together enough to manage major capital projects.

Not surprisingly, Mr. O'Malley had his way with the Board of Estimates, which voted this week for the city, not the school system, to manage the $17 million in city bonds designated for school construction in the next fiscal year.

But is this a timely power grab so that a mayor-who-would-be-governor can add school construction to his list of accomplishments? Is it an attempt by a hands-on mayor to be accountable for buildings that the city owns? Or is this a reasonable response to the school system's slow progress in getting a handle on capital spending?

While the city actually owns the school buildings, major capital projects have been managed by the school system as part of a total educational package. Now the question is who should be responsible for "systemic" improvements and renovations, including replacing windows, roofs and heating and ventilation systems.

For now, the city is right to spearhead these vital projects.

After last year's whopping deficit, school officials have had their hands full trying to put in place effective controls for the system's operating budget. While city officials understand that priority, they have been skeptical about similar progress regarding the schools' capital budget. In January, school officials acknowledged that they had not spent $97 million in approved construction money over the previous five years. The city Planning Commission raised a lengthy list of concerns, including questions about how the system might close or downsize facilities due to declining enrollment, but school officials failed to respond adequately.

By March, the commission had outlined its capital budget and capital improvement plan, including a move to have the schools' projects taken over by the Department of Public Works. That's essentially the plan that the Board of Estimates approved this week.

School officials protest that this move is unnecessary or, at the least, premature.

But the city insists that it plans to coordinate with the school system to establish priority projects and that it intends to manage the schools' capital projects for only one fiscal year, starting July 1. Ms. Copeland says that by July 1 she will have a management plan in place for capital projects that parallels improved management of the operating budget and, therefore, the city should back off. But given the school system's recent record on construction projects, it's Ms. Copeland who should back off. She'd be better off right now letting the city fix the school buildings, while she continues to fix the learning that takes place inside.

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