School plans may prove difficult

City asks for support as it moves forward despite low funds

December 09, 2005|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore school system officials are asking the public to stand with them as they prepare to close several schools around the city in the next few years.

In exchange, they are promising to build new schools and renovate old ones. Mayor Martin O'Malley unveiled a strategy yesterday to create a $75 million fund for school construction.

But the options for school construction and renovation presented by the school system this week would require a lot more than $75 million.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Dec. 9 editions stated that "the bulk of school construction funding in Baltimore comes from the state." In the current fiscal year, Maryland officials say, the state has provided $18.8 million to the city for school construction. Baltimore officials say the city has provided $17 million for school construction.
The Sun regrets the error.

The least expensive proposals on the table would cost $1.8 billion over the next decade, according to a Sun analysis. The most expensive would cost $2.1 billion. And that doesn't include the cost of upgrading the city's high schools, the proposals for which will be released next month.

David Lever, executive director of the state's Public School Construction Program, called the figures "staggering."

"They're going to have to prioritize," he said.

The bulk of school construction funding in Baltimore comes from the state, which allocated $250 million for all 24 school systems in Maryland this year. For next school year, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has indicated he will budget about $150 million for school construction. The Maryland Association of Counties is asking the state for $400 million.

"We're going to have to do everything we can to even get up to the $250 million mark," said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat who is vice chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Some say it's important for Baltimore schools to make the full extent of their needs known. Others question whether the school system is raising communities' hopes unrealistically.

At a news conference yesterday, the mayor said the $75 million he plans to allocate is just the beginning of a city commitment to repairing school buildings, a responsibility that has traditionally fallen to the state.

"Seventy-five million [dollars] here, 75 million [dollars] there, soon you knock off a billion or 2 billion [dollar] backlog," said O'Malley, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor. He said $75 million is the most the city has ever contributed toward school construction.

Scenarios for school construction and renovation were presented as part of scenarios for school closure at public forums Wednesday and last night. They were developed by eight community committees, using public feedback gathered this fall.

Between now and Dec. 20, the public can vote on the scenarios online. The community committees will then develop their recommendations and send them to the school board for a vote.

"We asked for the community's voice, and they're giving it to us," school board Chairman Brian D. Morris said Wednesday night as scenarios for northern city schools were being presented at Polytechnic Institute. "This was never [only] a school closure process. This is what the community wants. ... This is the citizens of Baltimore and the state of Maryland requesting that their tax dollars be used for school construction and renovation."

But when presented yesterday with the total amount the scenarios would cost and asked how the school system will pay for them, Morris replied: "I don't know." He added, "We certainly can't do it alone."

By encouraging the public to have high hopes, Morris said, the school system can "counterbalance against the state, which takes every opportunity they can to dash the hopes of this community."

Earlier this week, the state school board rejected the city's updated master plan for school reform, saying there were a variety of failures as it ordered the system to hire an independent monitor to evaluate its progress.

City school officials also dispute the contention from state school officials that Baltimore's major need is for school renovations, not construction - a point Lever made this week. The school system has enough space for 126,000 students but only 86,000 are enrolled.

Lever said Baltimore may need to build new schools in cases where the old buildings are beyond repair, but to be eligible for state funding, "we'd have to see the justification for it." He said the cost of new school construction is increasing by 20 percent a year.

The average school building in Baltimore is nearly 50 years old, and Morris argues that renovating buildings that old can be futile.

At yesterday's news conference, city schools chief executive Bonnie S. Copeland described the sort of schools she hopes will result from this year's massive planning process: schools that can offer programs in the summer because they have air conditioning, schools with access to the latest technology and schools that provide community services on site.

Responding to critics who don't want to see schools closed until all class sizes are reduced to 20 students or less, O'Malley said the cause of large class sizes is not lack of space but "lack of dollars for staff." By closing schools, he said, "money can be saved to hire more teachers."

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