State lawmakers hopeful for city schools facilities plan

But district still faces hurdles to secure financing

November 28, 2012|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Lawmakers across Maryland lauded the Baltimore school system's ambitious $2.4 billion blueprint to shed underused school buildings and upgrade the most dilapidated ones — calling the plan a critical first step in securing financial backing from the state.

But they said Wednesday that the plan still will face hurdles — including some sentiment that the city should contribute more funding — when educators, politicians and advocates begin their lobbying for the 2013 General Assembly session.

"They definitely needed a well-thought-out plan, and this seems to be one," said Del. Norman H. Conway, an Eastern Shore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

Having visited city schools, he considers new facilities a "dire need." But he added that while Baltimore's political leaders have pledged support for improving the system's infrastructure, there still needs to be a conversation about how the local government can increase financial support for schools even more.

"The amount of funding for public education from the city needs to be looked at and increased, to any degree that they can," Conway said. "They've got tremendous issues, but this changes priorities for the whole city. That conversation is going to be a necessity for additional state aid."

The 10-year plan announced by schools CEO Andrés Alonso on Tuesday would close 26 school buildings and rehabilitate 136 others to align the system's infrastructure with its student population and 21st century educational needs.

The bold, broad proposal is contingent upon the system's securing a state commitment to provide the city at least $32 million in capital funds annually in the form of a "block grant." That would allow the city to borrow billions, and pay the money back over 30 years.

Lawmakers stopped short of approving such a measure in the 2012 legislative session, asking school officials to develop a plan outlining facilities needs, an assessment of capital resources, and a vision for what the far-reaching program would look like decades down the line.

"I don't know that the plan is enough to commit, but it's a step in the right direction," said Republican Sen. David R. Brinkley, a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee who represents Frederick and Carroll counties.

Brinkley said that while the plan will likely be a work in progress, he expects the system will still have to grapple with closing schools to devote more resources to the classroom.

"Nothing about shutting down is easy," he said. "But we have to see them taking some pain, because we're asking to possibly take away from other areas down the line."

State officials were still combing through the 213-page booklet containing 177 recommendations and a school-by-school analysis. Within the 26 buildings proposed for closure are 12 schools that would be relocated, and 17 that would shut down.

By 2025 the system would be using 77 percent of its space — it currently uses 65 percent — and the number of school buildings would drop from 163 to 137.

Although the first year of construction would not start until 2014-2015, the system has recommended closing four schools at the end of this school year: Baltimore Rising Star Academy, Garrison Middle, Patapsco Elementary/Middle, and William C. March Middle. Those schools, officials said, have utilization rates between 20 percent and 50 percent, and struggle academically.

The Baltimore school board is scheduled to vote on the 10-year plan on Jan. 8. Each recommendation outlined in the plan will have to be approved on an annual basis.

The $35 million annual commitment seemed a less daunting task than in previous years when the state was "treading water" financially, said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., chair of the Education, Business and Administration Subcommittee.

"I think that is a doable amount of money, and hopefully, Congress won't pull the rug from underneath us with this fiscal cliff," said the Montgomery County Democrat. "And I think the plan will help fill in the blanks, so it's a little less of a 'Trust Me' kind of arrangement."

While lawmakers around the state expressed some reservations about the school system's plan, Madaleno said that doesn't mean they don't care about Baltimore's students.

"It leaves the impression that legislators from elsewhere in the state don't care about the city, or are not supportive of them, which couldn't be farther from the truth," he said. "Things look much brighter for the state, and this is probably the most significant thing we could do during the 2013 legislative session — for what it would mean for the economic development of the city, and ultimately for the whole state."

But the concerns for fairness and equity are warranted, said David G. Lever, director of the state's Public School Construction Program. Lever expressed reservations about the system's requests last year, particularly about sacrificing the state's future flexibility for an investment in one district.

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