Alonso's $1.2 billion school construction plan stalls in Assembly, will be studied for next year

Mayor plans to proceed with more modest program

March 30, 2012|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore schools chief Andrés Alonso's ambitious plan to leverage state dollars to finance $1.2 billion in school renovation and construction will not move forward in the General Assembly this year.

Instead of passing a bill that would jump-start such a program, the legislature will order a study of school construction financing between now and the 2013 Assembly session. The House Appropriations Committee voted Friday to adopt language in the Senate capital budget bill spelling out the goals and parameters of the study.

Bebe Verdery, director of education reform for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said the move likely means there will be no vote on a bill proposed by Del. Keith E. Haynes, a Baltimore Democrat, that would convert the annual allocation of school construction funds for the city to a block grant.

Such a shift was a cornerstone of Alonso's plan, which sought to use a state-guaranteed stream of $32 million a year to underwrite bonds to finance a major construction program. Alonso floated the idea in January as a way of addressing Baltimore's inventory of crumbling school buildings.

Alonso attributed the reluctance to move forward to the scope and novelty of the idea, but he expressed confidence that the plan would win acceptance next year.

"There were a lot of questions about impact and about what the plan really meant," he said. "People felt they needed to work through these questions, just like we had over time. I am glad that the proposal was received so seriously and that so many people agreed from the start that we needed to find a solution at the state and city levels."

Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said the administration was not surprised the far-reaching plan was not adopted by lawmakers in the first session they saw it. But he said progress had been made toward a school funding solution.

"At least the issue is at the forefront of people's thinking in Annapolis," O'Doherty said. He said the mayor now plans to move forward with her more modest $300 million school construction plan as an interim measure, along with the proposed bottle tax increase that would finance it.

Verdery said advocates of the Alonso plan "got a lot of pushback" from some of Maryland's larger counties, where officials had concerns that the arrangement could put their future school funding at risk.

Proponents said they hoped a study under state auspices would give legislative leaders, the O'Malley administration and other stakeholders reassurance that the plan is workable.

The study will be coordinated by the state's Interagency Committee on School Construction. Haynes said participants would include the school system, the city administration, the state budget department and the state Treasurer's Office.

The budget language calls for a study of the block grant proposal, the needs of the city school system, the track record of such financing in other parts of the country, how the Alonso plan would affect the state's bond rating and other issues.

Haynes said the study will also look into whether such a financing arrangement would be useful for other jurisdictions in the state.

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