A school building plan

September 23, 2005

Baltimore's public school population is decreasing, while many of its school buildings - the oldest in the state - are deteriorating. State officials are pressing the city to close some schools, and that might be inevitable - but city school officials are right to take a systematic approach. They've hired a nationally known consulting firm to help draw up a comprehensive plan to determine which buildings should be shut down, which should be renovated and which neighborhoods warrant new schools. City and state officials need to work together to ensure that students attend classes in safe, secure buildings that can meet their academic needs.

Although Baltimore's school buildings can accommodate 126,000 students, current enrollment is 87,000. Too many of these students are trying to learn in schools with no air conditioning, poor heating and broken or inadequate plumbing. Fixing all the maintenance problems would cost an estimated $1 billion, but coping with maintenance issues is just part of the larger challenge of figuring out the system's overall needs. State officials think many schools should be closed over the next three years, saving the system about $10 million a year in excessive heating, maintenance and other costs.

With so much empty space and projected continued enrollment declines, it will be necessary to shut some buildings. But after years of makeshift adjustments, city school officials are finally contemplating closures as part of a larger, deliberate plan that they will put together over the next several months with the help of consultants and eight community planning committees. The Ohio-based consultants, who have lots of experience studying school facilities, including in Baltimore County, have recently started meeting with the committees to help determine how many and what kinds of schools are needed in various neighborhoods. Those plans must coincide with educational reform efforts that aim to break up large high schools into smaller learning academies and convert some failing middle schools into K-8 schools that focus more on individual students.

How much this is all likely to cost must still be determined by the consultants, community committees and central school administrators as they push to prepare a proposal by next April. School districts across the state are scrambling for a share of school construction and renovation money that falls far short of the nearly $4 billion in estimated need identified by a task force in 2004. All the more reason for state and city school officials to work together to ensure that Baltimore comes up with a realistic and efficient plan that uses physical space to enhance the larger goal of improving educational outcomes for students.

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