Bill would allow City Council to dedicate funds for school facilities

If passed, public would vote in November on change to charter

May 31, 2011|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Hours after sweltering temperatures forced Baltimore school officials to order early dismissal, a City Council committee pushed forward with a bill that could give members unprecedented power in designating funds to improve the school system's long-beleaguered buildings.

Members of the council's legislative committee approved the bill Tuesday, which would allow the council to set up an account to pay for new school construction and athletic facilities, and modernizing equipment and supplies. A study last year found that the school system needs an estimated $2.8 billion to repair and replace its infrastructure.

Only the mayor has the power to designate or shift funds in the city budget.

The city's finance department opposed the measure. Andrew Kleine, the city's budget director, said the bill would limit the flexibility that future administrations have to fund their priorities.

Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, one of the principal sponsors of the legislation, said that he was "disturbed" by the finance department's stance.

"Education should be our No. 1 priority in the present and the future," Young said. "It boggles my mind that other jurisdictions give much more to their [schools]. The reason that our kids are out there making the problems we have is because they feel that the society they live in doesn't value them."

The bill will go to full council vote on Monday and then to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. If it is approved and signed, it would require a ballot vote in November because it would amend the city's charter.

In the hearing Tuesday, city leaders, city school officials and advocates said the measure was critical to establishing a steady stream of funding needed to renovate, modernize or completely rebuild schools.

City school officials used Tuesday's heat-related early dismissal to express the need for school improvements. More than 80 city schools lack air conditioning, and more than 130 need window replacements. At least 100 schools should be replaced or require major renovations, according to information provided by school officials.

"Today is a great example of the need," said Mike Frist, chief financial officer for the school system. "It's very difficult for kids to focus, and when we talk about achievement, it starts with our kids being able to focus on the task at hand."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland released two reports last year, one that found the billions of dollars in school facility deficits, and a second that recommended ways the city could creatively fund the improvements. Officials with the ACLU testified at the Tuesday hearing that they supported the bill.

Rawlings-Blake created a task force on school construction — which council members criticized for lack of transparency — that was due to release a report on its findings in February. The mayor's spokesman, Ryan O'Doherty, said the report will come out in June.

O'Doherty said that "there's no question that schools continue to be a top priority in the city's budget."

Despite two years of sizable deficits, O'Doherty said, the city has maintained its state-mandated funding for schools and also helped the system secure about $12 million in additional state revenue this year. The extra state money will be used for capital improvements.

The city school system has ramped up efforts to improve its facilities recently. It is in the process of commissioning a $1.4 million study of all buildings. Also, this year, the district will complete its first newly constructed school since 1998, Waverly Elementary/Middle School.

Andrew Stiller, community school site coordinator for the Greater Homewood Community at Waverly, told council members Tuesday about his excitement for the new schools.

"I know that the young students I work with every day are going to have the best resources available to them," Stiller said. "But this excitement comes with a little bit of sadness because I know I'm one of the lucky ones."

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