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baltimoresun.com

School board expected to add Hoffman to construction effort

By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

8:00 PM EST, February 11, 2013

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The Baltimore City school board is expected to sign off Tuesday on the hiring of former state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman to work for General Assembly approval of its ambitious $2.4 billion plan to rebuild its deteriorating facilities over a 10-year period.

Neil Duke, chairman of the board, confirmed Monday night that the district has held serious discussions about retaining Hoffman, for many years one of the most powerful lawmakers in Annapolis, to help sell legislators on the plan supported by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and school system chief executive Andres Alonso.

Duke said no public funds will be spent to hire the former senator.

News of the board's intentions circulated Monday in the city's General Assembly delegation. One city lawmaker described the hiring as "probably a good step."

The addition of Hoffman to the school system's lobbying team could be especially important because of her long experience with public finance issues and the Baltimore school system. Hoffman represented a Northwest Baltimore District in the Senate for 20 years -- eight of them as chairman of the Budget & Taxation Committee -- and earned a reputation as a tough, effective advocate for her causes.

Improving the city's troubled school system has long been one of those causes. Along with the late Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings, the mayor's father, Hoffman was one of the legislative architects of the restructuring of the city school system in the late 1990s that led to creation of an independent board named jointly by the city and state. She was also a driving force behind the adoption of the 2002 Thornton school funding formula that brought additional state aid to poorer school districts such as Baltimore's.

Hoffman lost her previously safe seat that year after a court redistricting decision that put her at an electoral disadvantage. She subsequently joined The Artemis Group in Annapolis as a lobbyist.

Hoffman said she has agreed to work on the school construction plan, which involves a state guarantee of an annual minimum block grant that could be used to underwrite bonds to pay for an accelerated effort to the rebuild the city's schools, the state's oldest.

"I'm getting myself up to speed on the issue," she said. Hoffman said that so far she has been impressed by the system's work in putting the proposal together.

"They've gone about this pretty professionally," she said.

Hoffman, a Democrat, said she will be paid but declined to comment on terms. She said the contract has not yet been signed.

Duke said Hoffman would be paid out of money contributed by a third-party, philanthropic organization that he declined to name.

"The district is sensitive about the expenditure of moneys," the board chairman said. "There won't be any public dollars spent on the effort to retain her services."

Duke said Hoffman would be part of the district's "team effort."

"She brings obvious value to the table, given her background and history," he said.

Hoffman's role could be especially important in the Senate, where she was long a key ally of president Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Miller has publicly expressed skepticism about the school system plan, though he has not categorically ruled it out. Also uncertain are the positions of Gov. Martin O'Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who have expressed interest in the approach without committing themselves to supporting it.