Dunbar funding falls short

Tensions come to a head at meeting this week with school board


Nearly four years ago, the Baltimore school system unveiled an ambitious plan to rebuild Paul Laurence Dunbar High as a showcase school focusing on the health professions.

Community leaders and alumni were pushing the system to restore academic excellence at the East Baltimore school and give it the same resources as its other citywide high schools, Polytechnic Institute, City College, Western High and School for the Arts.

But the system's promises for Dunbar have not materialized. The school's supporters are furious that the system managed to find $42 million to build Digital Harbor High but plans to spend only $17 million on what was supposed to be a $48 million project for Dunbar. The plans for Digital Harbor and Dunbar were unveiled at the same time.

At Dunbar, which once was one of two city high schools open to blacks and whose alumni include the financier Reginald F. Lewis and Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the state's highest court, construction has yet to begin.

While Dunbar has been waiting for a total overhaul of its building, the school has made classes more rigorous, replaced much of its staff and strengthened its partnership with its next-door neighbor, Johns Hopkins Hospital, said former city councilman and mayoral candidate Carl Stokes. But he said only so much progress is possible in a deteriorating building with a sorely inadequate library.

The tensions between the Dunbar community and the school system came to a head at a school board meeting Tuesday night, when Stokes accused the board of racism. Digital Harbor is one of the few city high schools with a significant white population, while Dunbar's student body is 99 percent black.

"To the black kids and their parents and the community, you've done jack for them in the ... years since you made the commitment," said Stokes, a member of the Dunbar Advisory Board, a group charged with bringing the school up to par with the other citywide high schools.

Making matters worse, Stokes said, the system rezoned poor, black students from Cherry Hill, denying them the opportunity to attend Digital Harbor.

"Obviously, this board doesn't care about black students," he concluded.

The school board chairman, Brian D. Morris, who is an African-American, called the allegations "inflammatory," "ridiculous" and "asinine."

"I am the parent of a black child in this system," Morris said.

Still, Morris and other school system officials acknowledge that Dunbar students have been shortchanged. They say they're left trying to fix the mistakes of a previous school board and administration. One particularly sore point: The administration required Dunbar to significantly cut its enrollment, which is now under 600, to make room for construction.

"This project has a long and painful history that's riddled with a series of bad decisions made by previous administrations and boards," said Eric T. Letsinger, the school system's chief operating officer. "We are left to play the cards that we have."

School system officials say the system has received $4.5 million in state money for the Dunbar project and it is eligible to apply for another $6 million. The city would chip in $6.9 million.

Under state school construction rules, the system is locked into the state funding that was approved for the Dunbar project two years ago. It could only receive more money for the project if it gives back the money it has already received and reapplies for funding - a move that both state officials and the Dunbar Advisory Board endorse.

If the school system were to reapply, it could potentially receive $23 million from the state because of factors such as increased construction costs, said David Lever, executive director the state's Public School Construction Program.

If the school system were to take that chance, Lever said, it would be extremely likely to pay off - if the system made the Dunbar project its first priority. The state cannot afford to fund everything school systems ask for, Lever said, but it defers to local priorities to dole out the money it does have.

But school system officials say their top priority must be making basic repairs to schools, such as replacing old boilers, broken windows and leaky roofs. They have opted not to gamble with their money for Dunbar, instead proceeding to plan for a much more modest project than originally promised.

"We have a bird in the hand," Letsinger said last week at a community forum to discuss school buildings in East Baltimore. "Our relationship with the state is strained. ... We decided to keep the bird in the hand."

"Well, $17 million is not adequate," replied Warren Hayman, chairman of the Dunbar Advisory Board and vice president of the Baltimore County school board. The advisory board wants to see the school equipped with state-of-the-art science labs and wired for every student to use a laptop.

The scaled-back Dunbar project is still in the design phase, so system officials cannot yet say what it will include beyond replacement of the school's windows and doors, which is scheduled to begin in June.

At last week's forum, Hayman criticized the school system for not including anything for Dunbar in a $100 million request for school renovation projects that it recently submitted to the state. The system is asking for money for 35 new boilers, 28 new chillers for air conditioners, 24 window and door projects and 17 new roofs.

"We feel you have disrespected the parents, students and people of the Dunbar community," Hayman said. "This would never happen at Poly. This would never happen at Western. This would never happen at City."


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