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Assembly leaders back financing plan for $1 billion in city school construction

General Assembly leaders have agreed on a financing plan to allow Baltimore to spend nearly $1 billion on a sweeping program to replace and repair dilapidated school buildings over the next seven years.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas Mike V. Miller said Monday they fully support and will line up votes for the plan, which would use state lottery revenue and the expertise of the Maryland Stadium Authority to borrow enough to build 15 new city schools and renovate dozens more.

The plan — which is fundamentally different from the block grant proposal city officials pushed — would require Baltimore, the city school system and the state to put up $20 million a year each to help pay back $1 billion in bonds over the next 30 years. The stadium authority would sell the bonds and oversee the construction program.

Miller and Busch both described the investment in city schools as a way to entice young couples and families to stay in the city.

"We want Baltimore City to have a renaissance and revitalization that makes them self-sufficient," said Busch, a Democrat from Anne Arundel County. "Without an injection of funding for schools, as well as public safety and economic development, they're not going to come out of a downward spiral. You look at this 20 years from now, and you have situation like Detroit."

Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, called the deal "unprecedented" and "a huge victory for the schoolchildren of Baltimore City."

A House committee is set to consider and vote Tuesday on the proposal — which still requires the approval of both chambers of the legislature. Under the plan, the state would pledge $20 million a year in lottery revenue.

"As the presiding officer, I'm going to do my best to sell it to them," Miller said. "And I think I can."

Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has let the legislature take the lead on school construction discussions, said in a statement he was "encouraged by the progress."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Monday night the city is pleased with the new proposal. "This deal is incredibly close to the amount of resources" the administration and other education advocates had been seeking, she said. "There are very few people who go to Annapolis and get 100 percent of what they want."

She said Baltimore's $20 million annual share would come from its general fund and from additional revenue from the city's bottle tax and casino table games.

"We will be able to show this generation of kids they'll have schools that reflect what our desire is for our children," she said.

Through a spokesman, Baltimore City schools CEO Andrés Alonso declined to comment. The plan would require the school system to find $20 million a year from its existing budget.

The Rawlings-Blake administration and education advocates have been pushing for more than two years for state support for a plan to rebuild city schools, which are among the oldest in Maryland. Baltimore is home to 47 of the state's 50 oldest schools that serve poor children, according to an analysis done for Busch's office.

Last year, the school system unveiled a 10-year, $2.4 billion plan to close 26 schools and replace or renovate 136 other school buildings.

To pay for it, city leaders wanted authority to borrow against a promised stream of state bonds, a debt-on-debt plan that raised concerns in Annapolis.

Using the stadium authority — and requiring the city and school system to come up with two-thirds of the cash each year to keep the program going — makes the idea more palatable to legislators, members of the city's delegation said.

"There needed to be some accountability," said Del. Keiffer Mitchell, a Democrat. "There couldn't be just a 'Trust us, and we'll see what happens.'"

Busch said the school renovation program could help to create a reason for Marylanders to move back to Baltimore, which he called "a hub of activity."

"You just can't have people going to work there and leaving and going back to the suburbs," Busch said. "You have to have something that attracts them to live in the area."

Members of the city delegation who helped negotiate the plan shared optimism that, with its passage, Baltimore could reverse its decades-long population decline that has only recently seemed to turn a corner.

"I believe, and I really do believe this, that this is one of the key elements to transforming the city," Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Democrat, said. "I believe that all these young couples that move into the city love the city, love their corner pubs, love their dog park. And then they look down the street and see their neighborhood schools."

Del. Curt Anderson, chair of the city's House delegation, praised the cash influx as a way to improve the lives of current students in short order. "We'll have schools where children can use the bathroom, drink the water and not have to wear coats indoors in the wintertime."

ecox@baltsun.com

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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