Community will guide overhaul of city school system

October 14, 2005|By BRIAN D. MORRIS

Sound, well-equipped buildings and classrooms are essential complements to teaching and learning. For too long, Baltimore schools have suffered through antiquated buildings that no other school system in the state has had to endure. Our principals are spending too much of their time worrying about whether the heat or the lights are going to work when they come in to school in the morning. We have patched leaky roofs and jump-started faulty heating systems for so long we have come to accept these deficiencies as norms. They are not.

Our children deserve better, and we intend to see that they get it.

For the first time, the Baltimore community is looking at the entire school system and painting the picture of what school facilities should look like in every corner of this city. We have to be willing to think big and creatively about what we want for our children - and we are. We are building a system that is based on our needs, priorities, interests and choice.

Achieving this goal will not come without some tough decisions, but this community is used to making tough decisions to ensure the best possible future for our children.

Our system today was built for a student population of 126,000, which we last saw in 1980. Today, we have more than 86,000 students on our rolls. In addition to insufficient state appropriations to help maintain our facilities, the school system made concerted efforts to protect dollars for the classroom in the face of limited funding. As a result, our facilities suffered.

Through this "facility solutions" process, we will have to reduce capacity - by 15 percent systemwide over three years - but where and how we make those adjustments will result from sound data and the input from the community. Our primary focus is on aligning our resources to meet the needs of our students.

By no means should this be viewed as a school closure plan. This plan is about ensuring that we have the right school facilities to support modern academic programming and recommending cutting-edge space utilization strategies that will help to put our system and our students in the forefront rather than being asked once again to do the best you can with what little you have. This plan also will include renovations, additions, modifications and the construction of new schools.

There is no particular school slated for closing, nor is there is a short list of schools being considered behind closed doors.

The Board of School Commissioners and CEO Bonnie S. Copeland have committed to an open and transparent process where the community tells us what the school configuration should be in each area, which is why it is critically important that the entire Baltimore community participate in this process. Michael Carter, chairman of the Parent Community Advisory Board, has agreed to chair the citywide steering committee that is overseeing this process, to ensure that we keep this commitment to complete transparency. Forums will be held next Wednesday and Thursday.

We know that the anticipation of change can be unsettling. We have had an extended period of setbacks and negative coverage over the years as we have worked to restore public confidence in our abilities to provide a competitive education for our students and to manage resources. Unfortunately, public trust has been a painful casualty of these difficult years.

We are beginning to restore it with measurable sustained progress, and telling our story about that progress, both inside and outside the classroom: The majority of our students in grades 1-4 now test proficient in reading and math. Our students received the most scholarship money in the history of the city, more than $35 million. We are closing our deficit at an accelerated rate and fully expect to end this fiscal year with no deficit for the first time in six years.

We remain open and accessible to the public for review.

This system only works when we work together. We need you and our children need you.

Brian D. Morris is chairman of the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners.

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