State leaders appear to warm to city's school facilities plan

But state's public school construction agency has yet to endorse plan

January 17, 2013|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

State lawmakers appeared to warm Thursday to the Baltimore school system's $2.4 billion building modernization plan that received a chilly reception last year, but the blueprint fell short of garnering the endorsement of the state's public school construction agency.

Baltimore City schools CEO Andrés Alonso and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake presented a united front before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, where the two leaders urged members to support a plan that relies on borrowing billions of dollars and a $32 million annual commitment from the state for the next several decades.

"I commend you for being bold," said Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, chairman of the committee and a Howard County Democrat.

City leaders argued that the plan would address the system's dire infrastructure needs in 10 years instead of 50, while improving the quality of life in Baltimore and, by extension, the state.

"More families will choose to live in our neighborhoods if [schools] are safe and modern," said Rawlings-Blake, whose administration has a goal of attracting 10,000 more families to Baltimore in 10 years. "Now we have a road map forward."

Alonso and Rawlings-Blake were sent back to the drawing board last year, when state lawmakers said the city had not presented a coherent or cohesive plan. State officials asked that the school system return with a laundry list of their needs and more financial backing from the city.

"The feedback from last year made us smarter, made us readier," said Alonso, likening the plan to a "stimulus package," in that it will bring 8,000 jobs and other economic benefits to the city.

The system commissioned a $1 million study that put a price tag on every infrastructure need in every school building in Baltimore, and guided a plan that would shutter 26 buildings, cut or merge 29 programs, and renovate or rebuild 136 buildings.

Rawlings-Blake proposed, and the City Council approved, a bottle tax that would contribute $10 million a year to school construction.

While officials said they recognized the immediacy of the city's needs — and lauded the level of detail included in this year's plans — they still have reservations about the long-term implications for the rest of the state.

"We approve a capital budget every year," said Sen. Ed DeGrange, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "We can't go beyond a year at a time."

Alonso told lawmakers that although securing the plan will require an unprecedented financial commitment, "the price of inaction is extraordinary."

David Lever, executive director of the public school construction program, said that while the city had made significant strides, there were critical elements that needed to be fleshed out and risks that should be heeded.

Lever said that his original concern still remained about the plan's implications for what could be afforded to the state's 23 other districts and the Maryland School for the Blind.

"Part of our mission is to provide equity in funding," he said, "so we can have equity of result."

Lever also pointed out that neither the school system nor his office was adequately staffed to oversee the plan.

He said that while the plan calls for an independent authority — made up of the governor, mayor and school board-appointed members — to manage the projects and funding, the state's purview would need to be further clarified, particularly because projects of this magnitude have a history of being fraught with financial mismanagement.

"When we raise these concerns, it's not to stand in the way," Lever said. "We see ourselves as tough-love friends."

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