Baltimore's bold — and necessary — school plan

Our view: Alonso's massive school repair, renovation and construction plan is exactly what the city needs to improve educational opportunities for students and attract new families to Baltimore

December 03, 2012

The $2.4 billion building renovation and construction plan unveiled by Baltimore City schools CEO Andrés Alonso this week represents the most far-reaching and ambitious program the city has yet come up with to break out of its cycle of poverty and disinvestment. Mr. Alonso's vision over the next 10 years calls for transforming 136 of the school system's aging buildings into state-of-the-art learning centers with well-lighted, well-equipped classrooms, libraries, media centers and athletic facilities, while closing 26 obsolete or underutilized buildings and transferring their students to new locations. This is exactly what Baltimore needs if it is to achieve Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's goal to grow its population by 10,000 new families over the next decade.

Inevitably, some parents will be alarmed and upset by the prospect of school closures in their neighborhoods. The decision to shutter a cherished community institution and consolidate its students at a different site is one of the most difficult judgments educators can make. Even if a school no longer is capable of offering the kinds of programs and amenities that meet current educational and safety standards, many people retain a sentimental attachment to its familiar presence, and traveling farther to school can be a burden. School officials need to take extra care to make the transition as smooth as possible.

Yet there's no doubt that children will have a far better chance of succeeding in school if they are taught in modern, up-to-date facilities. As it is, too many students have been struggling in decrepit school buildings desperately in need of renovation, modernization and replacement, some of which lack even such basic amenities as functional heating, air-conditioning and ventilation systems, much less adequate computer networks and science labs. Sending children into crumbling, dilapidated buildings is tantamount to depriving them of their basic right to an education, and it sends a terrible message about how little society values their potential to learn.

As a practical matter, Mr. Alonso probably had to come up with a plan of this scale if he was to have any hope of getting state legislators to consider creating a funding mechanism commensurate with the needs of such a massive building project. His proposal hinges on an innovative arrangement under which the state and city would guarantee a dedicated revenue stream to back bonds that would pay for school construction and renovation. That approach would allow the school system to take advantage of economies of scale in purchasing labor and materials and to benefit from historically low borrowing costs. It would also break the city out of a cycle in which it (and the state) spends millions on ineffective patches to buildings that will never be adequate.

The idea of using existing city and state capital funds to leverage additional borrowing is not new, but it has never been tried in Maryland, and there are still questions about what it would require that lawmakers in Annapolis will have to resolve. But by demonstrating that Baltimore is willing to make the tough choice of closing schools to right-size the district, Mr. Alonso has signaled to the rest of the state that the city has skin in the game and that he understands sacrifices are necessary to move the system forward.

All this may still not mollify local residents fearful of what will happen when their neighborhood school closes and their children are assigned elsewhere. But Mayor Rawlings-Blake put it well when she said our loyalty must be to the children, not the buildings. Parents can take heart that the process represents a crucial step toward real improvement in the schools their children attend. The transition may be difficult at times, and there may well be some temporary inconvenience or overcrowding as educators work out the kinks in the plan. But over the long run, the results will clearly be better for kids, for their parents and for the city as a whole.

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