Rebuilding schools

December 13, 2005

What a difference a surplus makes. Baltimore's rosier financial picture allowed Mayor Martin O'Malley to announce last week a $75 million plan to help build and renovate city schools, which average nearly 50 years in age. His initiative is meant to fit in with an ongoing school downsizing and restructuring plan. While City Hall and North Avenue have often been at odds over rebuilding schools, these efforts are a sound investment in the city's future. But many Baltimore schools are so dilapidated that the new city money is merely a drop in the bucket. It's imperative for all parties, including the state, to support essential capital improvements.

With enrollment declines and many buildings that have persistent academic and maintenance problems, the city school board has voted to eliminate 2.7 million square feet of space in the next three years. A careful process that includes substantial input from communities will determine which schools should be renovated, restructured or closed. Among other things, the process aims for a closer match of physical space to academic and community needs.

Whatever the final plan, there is no question that tending to the schools' physical shortcomings will be expensive. Mr. O'Malley's latest announcement to help schools anticipates a combination of funding for capital improvements, including $25 million from the city's projected surplus; $25 million from planned economic development initiatives that include school construction or renovations, such as in East Baltimore; $15 million over five years through general obligation bonds; and $10 million from the expected sale of some school buildings that will likely be closed as a result of the system's downsizing effort. In addition, with the school system set to be in the black by the end of the current academic year, it's possible that money no longer needed to close the deficit gap can be redirected to fix buildings.

Even though City Hall boasts that $75 million is the largest sum it has ever committed to school construction, Mr. O'Malley acknowledged that it can only make a dent in satisfying the schools' capital needs. The state - which has much more bonding and funding capacity than it has chosen to use for school construction among all jurisdictions - has provided only about $40 million to Baltimore over the past three years. Yet an analysis by The Sun of some of the city's preliminary plans to restructure schools suggests a tab of at least $1.8 billion over 10 years. That makes it critical for the school system and communities to come up with a realistic blueprint for new and renovated buildings and for the state and city to provide adequate funding.

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