The physical needs of Baltimore City schools seem overwhelming. Leaky roofs, faulty boilers, boarded-over windows, broken or non-existent air conditioning, unusable water fountains and outmoded science labs. Baltimore has the oldest inventory of schools in the state, and thanks to years of disinvestment, mismanagement and a reluctance to reduce the system's physical capacity to meet a historic decline in enrollment, they have been allowed to deteriorate to a point where proper instruction and learning are difficult if not impossible. The problem has grown to where it has been easier for state and local officials to ignore it than to try to deal with it comprehensively.
But the release today of a long-awaited facilities report by schools CEO Andrés Alonso, on the heels of a vote in the Baltimore City Council to move forward with a new tax dedicated to school construction, should convince state officials that the days of Baltimore avoiding hard choices about its schools are over. Mr. Alonso's assessment of the system's needs, prepared with the help of outside consultants, shaves $300 million from the price tag for fixing up Baltimore's schools that the ACLU and other groups had previously estimated — though at nearly $2.5 billion, it is still greater than the state's total investment in school construction and renovations for every county in the last 10 years.
What is most crucial about this report, though, is that Mr. Alonso plans to use it as a springboard to "right-size" the district by pursuing the closure of under-utilized or dilapidated schools. That won't be easy, but it is necessary and could reduce the overall cost to bring the system up to acceptable standards. Furthermore, it should encourage legislators to take more aggressive steps in helping the city with its efforts.
The report considers the physical condition of the buildings, their educational adequacy — that is, the ability of the school's structure to accommodate the needs of a modern curriculum — and anticipated additional maintenance costs over 10 years. It identifies 125 school campuses, or more than two-thirds of the district total, as being in "very poor" condition; 50 of them are so bad that the report concludes they should be replaced or closed.
The report provides no recommendations for how the district should proceed, but Mr. Alonso plans to use that information to hold a series of community meetings to provide parents and students with the specifics of their schools' conditions. He intends to use that process to build a consensus around a master plan for school modernization that would almost certainly include closing some of the city's schools and consolidating others.
The report finds that city schools are at just 66 percent of their capacity (80 percent to 85 percent is ideal), and that middle schools and high schools are particularly under-subscribed. Although the number of square feet needed per student has increased over time (there were, for example, no computer labs when most Baltimore City schools were built), any serious effort to overhaul the system's facilities will require significant downsizing. Such an undertaking is almost certain to produce a strong emotional response from parents and students whose schools are the ones slated for closure. The prospect may be painful, but if it allows the district to give the students the education they deserve, it will be worth it.
If Mr. Alonso can build support among community members and city elected officials for such a plan, it will strengthen his hand when he returns to Annapolis next year to seek help in renovating Baltimore schools. This year, Mr. Alonso pitched an ambitious proposal that would have the state and city provide the system (or, more likely, an independent school construction authority) with block grant funding for school renovations that could be used to float bonds to finance a major overhaul. Mr. Alonso figured that the funds the city and state typically provide for city school construction already, plus an increased bottle tax and other funds that MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blake has pledged to the cause, could support issuing as much as $1.1 billion in bonds. That wouldn't completely solve the city's problems, but it would be a good start.
Members of the legislature generally appreciated the need to do something significant about city schools, but they were unwilling to go along with the plan, in part because of questions raised by its novelty in Maryland. A summer study group is working through those now. But an equally important part of legislators' reluctance to commit to such a proposal stemmed from a sense that the city had not properly managed its facilities in the past and a worry that whatever plan the city might agree to now would be overtaken by new needs within a few years. The effort Mr. Alonso is now undertaking — and the sign of political commitment the city made by increasing its bottle tax to fund school construction — should substantially allay those concerns. There is now no reason for the General Assembly not to make city school construction a central issue of its 2013 session.