43,000 empty seats hold opportunity

February 15, 2007|By David F. Tufaro

The decline in the general population and student enrollment in Baltimore over the last several decades has led to an immense excess physical capacity in our public school facilities: 125,000 seats for an enrollment of 82,381 students. The school system's consultants project a further decline to 70,000 students by 2015.

This excess capacity is an albatross around the city's neck, costing millions of dollars a year in keeping vacant or underutilized school space open, and at the same time creating uncertainty as to where much-needed renovation efforts should be focused. It also forecloses the opportunities for reuse of those facilities for other pressing needs in the city.

The roughly 43,000 empty seats translate to 8 million to 9 million square feet of space.

Consolidating schools down to the needed physical capacity would save the school system $15 million to $20 million a year. With those savings, Baltimore could hire 300 to 400 new teachers.

In fall 2005, the Board of School Commissioners, which runs the school system, voted to reduce operating space by 15 percent over three years - less than half the reduction required. If you were running a business and new technology allowed you to manufacture with one-third less space, you would reduce your overhead cost by subletting the space or moving to a location with less square footage. In contrast, Baltimore school boards over many years have allowed the excess school facility space to accumulate and passed the problem on to successors.

Faced with a similar situation in Detroit, school officials there recently announced plans to shut 51 of 232 school buildings - a total of 54,000 empty seats - as part of an overall effort to reduce a large budget shortfall, estimating that these actions would save $19 million per year.

The flip side of a problem or a challenge is often a significant opportunity, and that is no less the case here. An additional 9 million square feet of vacant space offers tremendous opportunities for the Baltimore school system and the city.

The schools or the grounds on which the buildings are situated offer the opportunity to provide new amenities and services, including recreation, after-school programs, job training, drug treatment, market-rate and affordable housing, urban gardens, places for new businesses, and needed community retail facilities. The list could go on and on.

At the scale we are talking about, this planning process needs to involve the major departments of the city, with leadership provided by the mayor, the City Council, the director of planning and the housing commissioner. The residents of the communities in which these schools are located have the opportunity to help replan and decide the priorities for their neighborhoods. The unhappiness and anger that may be caused by the announcement of school closings should be converted into creative ideas for transforming their neighborhoods, with support and resources provided by the city and the state.

Fixing the space problem should be a lot easier than overcoming the obstacles of teaching our many severely disadvantaged children. I fully recognize that nobody wants a neighborhood school closed. There is a lot of emotion connected to school closings; there is no getting around that reality. However, it is the responsibility of leaders - in this case, the city school board - to make those difficult decisions for what is, in the end, in the best interests of the students and the city.

This action will help reinforce Baltimore's case for a larger injection of state funding for school renovations and even construction of school buildings to replace outdated facilities. Gov. Martin O'Malley and the General Assembly should make their school renovation funding contingent upon the school commissioners committing to the full reduction in school facilities required; our elected officials owe that to Maryland taxpayers.

David F. Tufaro is a member of the Maryland State Board of Education and was a Republican candidate for mayor of Baltimore. His e-mail is smttufaro@aol.com.

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