As Baltimore City education and political leaders prepare to present a $2.4 billion facilities plan in Annapolis next legislative session, officials in Baltimore County said they are eyeing a similar approach to repair their school infrastructure.
County schools officials are in the process of studying each of the system's 174 buildings to determine how they might fit into a long-term plan to upgrade the system's infrastructure, estimated to cost at least $1.7 billion.
The city decided this week on a 10-year plan that would close 26 buildings, end or relocate 29 programs, and renovate or rebuild 136 facilities. The city's plan hinges on securing at least $32 million in annual capital funding from the state in the form of a block grant, which would allow the system to borrow to carry out the plan quickly and pay back the money over time.
"To the extent we see the state supporting upgrades to school facilities in Baltimore City, whether through block grants or other methods, I am confident that the delegation members would like to see the state step up and provide similar resources and flexibility to address our challenges as well," said Del. John Olszewski, Jr., a Democrat who is chairman of the Baltimore County delegation.
The city's plan was first introduced in the 2012 legislative session and met resistance from lawmakers who said the school system needed to conduct an intensive study of its buildings and produce a coherent, long-term plan.
Officials from several other jurisdictions also expressed concern that the plan could divert resources for their districts in the future.
"While the city has the oldest school stock in the state, Baltimore County has the second — and thus we face many similar challenges in regards to our school infrastructure," Olszewski said.
While Baltimore City's plan centers around a population that has shrunk over the years — the system is using only 65 percent of its space, which it plans to increase to 77 percent — county schools have grappled with overcrowding and will need to prepare their infrastructure for the county's growth, particularly in northwest and central county schools.
The county's elementary schools are at 103 percent capacity; middle schools are at 79.2 percent; and high schools are at 89.7 percent.
City school officials said they welcome the idea of other districts' using their plan as a model to help students across the state.
"The financing approach which we are recommending is something we believe could work for other districts," said city schools spokeswoman Edie House Foster. "We welcome interest and support from other jurisdictions for this innovative approach to make sure our students have the buildings they deserve."
In the short term, the county school system is addressing issues like air conditioning in schools, the lack of which has increased the discomfort amid increasingly crowded conditions. Last month, officials rolled out a plan that would air-condition all but 46 of the county's schools by 2015.
County Superintendent Dallas Dance said Thursday that the study of all of the county's buildings will jump-start a conversation with the county's leadership. He has ordered the report completed by January.
He commended the city's plan, saying that he and city schools chief Andrés Alonso share the same burden of an aging infrastructure.
"Because we have studied our facilities for so long, I'm confident at the end of this, we're going to be at a very critical point where we can have a candid conversation with our colleagues, and it will be received very well," Dance said.
County school board president Lawrence Schmidt said the county would put all options on the table.
He said the district could explore myriad other options, such as adjusting school schedules to reduce class sizes, moving school boundaries, and even exploring combining middle- and elementary-school programs.
"People hear 'facilities,' and they think, 'Build a new building, or build an addition,' and that's not always the answer," Schmidt said. "We would obviously like to get our slice of the pie, and would certainly welcome any additional state commitment. But we also need to address facilities needs in a logical way where we can maximize the resources to put the dollars where we need them to be."
Don Mohler, chief of staff for Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, said that "each subdivision is unique and must address this important issue in its own manner."
He added that in the past decade, the state has contributed nearly $350 million to the county schools renovation and construction program, and the county has contributed nearly $1 billion.
"Because of that commitment, Baltimore County is actually ahead of the game," Mohler said. "But with 80 percent of our schools being more than 40 years old, County Executive Kamenetz will continue to make school renovation and construction funding his number one legislative priority."
Alan Southworth, who fought vehemently with other Baltimore County parents at the county and state level for air conditioning at Middleborough Elementary, which his daughter attends, said the Baltimore City plan was encouraging. The school got air conditioning in Kamenetz's 2013 budget.
"I know going to Annapolis is hard, but there shouldn't be any favoritism in how delegates vote, and everybody should have the same fair shot no matter where you live," Southworth said.
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