Plan to borrow money for city schools stalls

July 07, 2006|By JOHN FRITZE AND SARA NEUFELD | JOHN FRITZE AND SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTERS

A proposal to borrow $36 million to rehabilitate Baltimore schools has stalled in the City Council because of questions over how the capital improvement money is being allocated - a conflict that is likely to result in a showdown on the council floor next week.

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who chairs the Taxation and Finance Committee, has delayed a committee vote on the borrowing because he has questions about why some school building projects that received funding in previous years require more money.

"My whole issue is, one, accountability and, two, the process," said Mitchell, who said he would vote against the bill unless school officials provided further explanation about the spending. "At what point do you say, `Wait a minute?'" he asked.

In a letter sent to school officials June 22, Mitchell questioned why Paul Laurence Dunbar High School was slated for $6.5 million for the addition of a premedicine program in 2002 but required another $6 million in 2004 and more money for the program this year. He raised similar questions about projects for Leith Walk Elementary and Highlandtown Middle School.

School board Chairman Brian D. Morris said he is confused and dismayed by Mitchell's stance and said the school system provided the councilman with all the necessary information to alleviate his concerns.

Morris acknowledged that the system previously had a "logjam" on school construction and renovation projects, but he said that is "something the system has worked on and really solved." He said the state and the city, the primary funding sources for capital projects, have noted the system's progress.

"We've worked very hard with each of those communities to mutually agree upon significant renovations to their facilities," he said.

School officials responded to Mitchell's questions with a letter, dated June 29. In it, then-interim Chief Operating Officer J. Keith Scroggins wrote that the Dunbar project had been significantly delayed because the state did not allocate funds required to cover its portion of the project.

Some officials, including Morris, expressed concern that the delay could jeopardize the city's ability to put the bond issue on the ballot in November - all such borrowing must be approved by voters. To get the proposal on the ballot, the council must act by mid-August.

The council could vote to suspend the requirement for a committee vote and advance the proposal to a vote for approval in the full council. There are two council meetings scheduled before the deadline, one Monday and the other Aug. 14.

john.fritze@baltsun.com sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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