Dixon shifts school funds from mortar to programs

$5 million budget item brings angry response

May 15, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

One year after her predecessor vowed to set aside $25 million to renovate Baltimore schools, Mayor Sheila Dixon's administration has redirected a portion of that money elsewhere - angering advocates who say that some city school buildings are still in terrible shape.

The proposed $2.65 billion budget includes a line directing the city to "de-appropriate" $5 million in surplus money that had been set aside by then-Mayor Martin O'Malley for school construction and rehabilitation last year. Dixon officials said yesterday that the money will be shifted to after-school programs.

Education advocates and some members of the City Council sharply questioned that decision and argued the city had repeatedly promised to upgrade its schools. The $25 million, announced by O'Malley in the middle of last year's gubernatorial campaign, was approved by the council in June.

"There was a commitment made to the school system," City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said at a meeting that preceded the council's annual public hearing on the proposed budget. "I don't think any of us realized it was subject to subtraction."

Dixon officials, including Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank, countered that the $5 million will still be used for children, but will be directed to the Family League of Baltimore to pay for after-school programs. The $5 million, he said, would not be needed by the school system this year anyway.

"The judgment we made was to take the $5 million to spend it now to invest in our kids rather than allowing it to sit in an account," Frank said, adding that the administration is still committed to spending $25 million on school construction once that money is needed.

A schools spokeswoman did not return several phone calls seeking comment.

Members of the City Council said they learned of the administration's decision over the weekend, weeks after the budget was introduced. The council has virtually no control over the budget. It can only cut spending, not increase it. Several council members suggested taking $5 million from the city's $75 million "rainy day" fund.

"It is raining in my district," Clarke said.

City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake said she was concerned "that we told the public during previous budget seasons that this money is going to be held in a locked box. ... I would daresay that we should make it a higher priority to make sure that [children] have decent facilities to go into for these after-school programs."

Several dozen people came to City Hall yesterday to testify on the proposal, and many asked the council to spend more money on education and other programs for children. A handful spoke directly to the $5 million shift.

"We urge you not to cut $5 million from the capital budget and to stay with your promises to the city's children in the public schools," said Bebe Verdery, education reform director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

Advocates have pushed Baltimore officials for more money for after-school programs for years, but a director with one of those groups, Baltimore's Safe & Sound Campaign, said advocates would prefer not to be pitted against other educational needs, including school construction, and would rather have a dedicated stream of stable funding.

Dixon officials said the $5 million in question had been earmarked for new school construction but that no new schools were planned this year. At the time of its announcement, however, the O'Malley administration repeatedly stressed that the money could be used for renovation.

The $25 million appropriation ordinance approved by the council in June reads that the money, collected in the fiscal year that ended in 2006, can be used for "school construction and renovations."

School construction money, much of which comes from the state, became an issue in last year's gubernatorial campaign between O'Malley and then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. O'Malley frequently cited the school construction fund as proof of his commitment to education. Overall, $75 million in additional money was promised.

Under Dixon's $2.65 billion budget, which was proposed in March and which the City Council has until June to approve, spending would increase by more than 10 percent - largely because of an increase in state environmental grants. The city's property tax rate would decline by 2 cents. The fiscal year 2008 budget takes effect July 1.


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