U.s. Stimulus Funds Prompt Quicker Area School Renovations

November 07, 2009|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,liz.bowie@baltsun.com

Fueled by federal stimulus dollars, school districts in Baltimore City and Baltimore County are speeding up construction projects that have been on hold for years for lack of funding, including the possible construction of the first new city school in a decade.

While most of the money - $300 million to be spent statewide over four years - will go toward essentials such as new boilers, chillers, roofs, doors and windows - the city hopes to use some of its dollars to build a new Lexington Terrace school on the west side and an athletic facility on the east side.

Dozens of schools would get new media centers.

"It is a tremendous boost," said J. Keith Scroggins, chief operating officer of the city schools. "It is like getting seven years of allocation from the state in a two-year period."

The infusion of money means that after the last school bell rings in June, work crews will begin a construction push that is expected to reach every school in Baltimore.

The city school system has an estimated $1 billion of deferred maintenance on its schools, an amount that would take many years to catch up on without a boost in funding.

In the county, the money is expected to go toward funding high school renovations, said the district's chief financial officer, Barbara Burnopp. "We won't do a different project," she said, "but we will do it more quickly." The county is systematically going through its aging high schools and putting in new windows, heating and cooling systems and doing other upgrades, including adding to science laboratories and technical education classrooms.

As part of an effort to get the economy going, the federal government is authorizing 100 school systems in the country with a high percentage of poor students to issue tax credit bonds for school repairs and construction. In Maryland, only three jurisdictions have received the bond authorization: city schools, which can issue $116 million; Baltimore County, which will get nearly $40 million; and Prince George's, which will get about $50 million. In addition, the state is allowed to issue another $100 million that will go toward funding projects across the state.

This fiscal year, Baltimore County's expenditure for all capital projects was $224 million, including funds from the state. Baltimore City, in contrast, has a budget for school construction and renovation of about $83 million.

The school systems and the state must pay back the principle over 15 years. Bondholders are given a credit on their federal income tax, according to David G. Lever, executive director of the Maryland Public School Construction Program.

Baltimore County issued its bonds Oct. 27 and the city expects to do so next month after getting approval on a technical detail by the Board of Public Works later this month. Because the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill several years ago allowing the city schools to issue a maximum of $100 million in bonds, the school system will have to return to the legislature this winter to ask that the $100 million cap be raised.

The state pays for up to 94 percent of school construction and renovation costs on projects in the city and 50 percent in Baltimore County.

Scroggins said construction on a Lexington Terrace school could begin in the next several years, but the district first needs to decide whether enrollment in the community justifies it and then ask the community for support. Architectural plans for a new school were completed years ago, after the high-rise Lexington Terrace public housing projects and an elementary/middle school were torn down.

As townhouses were built a decade ago, city officials explored the idea of building a math and science school on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in West Baltimore.

The idea was to construct a $20 million building with lots of computers and science labs and a community center that would offer day care and after-school care to neighborhood families.

The design was based on one built in a low-income area of Atlanta that two school board officials toured, said William Struever, who was a city school board member at the time.

But Baltimore school officials were never able to persuade the state to fund the new school because the city's enrollment was declining and state officials were pushing for the city to close schools, not build new ones, Struever said.

Scroggins said other major projects in the city include $3.2 million for an athletic facility that would be used by several schools, as well as replacement of career technology equipment. More major repairs and renovations are slated for Frederick Douglass High School, which would get $4 million in new windows and a refurbished exterior, and renovations to the Thomas G. Hayes Elementary School.

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