By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun
9:22 PM EST, January 23, 2013
Some Baltimore legislators, determined to win state approval for the city's ambitious plan to launch a $2.4 billion, 10-year overhaul of its aging school facilities, are considering bringing in the Maryland Stadium Authority to provide construction expertise and financial oversight.
The lawmakers are concerned that some state leaders are questioning whether the city school system has the ability to manage a project of that scope.
One proposal is to set up a new authority to oversee construction contracting and monitoring of projects. Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat who serves on the pivotal Budget & Taxation Committee, said that plan calls for a board with three representatives each from the state, City Hall and the city school system.
McFadden said if that arrangement doesn't satisfy skeptics who want a more powerful state role, he's willing to consider a role for the stadium authority or another state entity such as the Maryland Higher Educational Facilities Authority.
"If someone has a better mousetrap, we're willing to consider it," McFadden said. "It could be any entity that helps us accelerate the process."
The plan backed by city schools CEO Andrés Alonso and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake involves turning $32 million a year of the city's annual allotment of state school construction aid into a block grant that could then be used along with city funds to float bonds to finance the massive reconstruction project. Among those expressing trepidation about the plan has been Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who at one point described the notion as "ridiculous."
"You can't just give money away to a jurisdiction, money belonging to the state from our state taxpayers, without having a check and balance on how the money is being spent — and spent wisely," Miller said last week.
McFadden, a key Miller ally who serves as president pro tem, said the Baltimore Senate delegation — all Democrats like Miller — is holding discussions with the Senate president.
Two members of the city's all-Democratic House delegation also confirmed that there has been discussion of bringing in an existing entity to provide oversight of the project.
Del. Maggie McIntosh, a senior member of House leadership, said of the stadium authority, "They're a trusted entity. Why don't we use them?"
Del. Keith Haynes, who holds a key spot on the House Appropriations subcommittee on the capital budget, said he believes the city has the capacity to manage such an undertaking but said he's open to the idea of involving an existing agency such as the stadium authority.
"The main thing is that all the stakeholders are on the same page working toward the same end," he said. "The real crux of the issue is making sure there's a true comfort with oversight."
Despite its name, the stadium authority has taken on many projects over the past two decades in addition to sports arenas. Among them have been the convention centers in Baltimore and Ocean City, the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center and projects at the University of Maryland, College Park. The authority has had a role in the Baltimore Grand Prix, for which it helped prepare the race course.
Jan Hardesty, a stadium authority spokeswoman, declined to comment on the possibility of a role in the school construction plan.
Alonso did not respond to a request for comment.
Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O'Malley, would not comment last night on any possible stadium authority role but acknowledged the governor is taking an active interest in the issue.
"The governor looks forward to talking with Dr. Alonso in the next week or so to discuss the proposal before making any decision on whether to support the plan," Guillory said.
O'Malley has taken a largely behind-the-scenes role in the discussions of the plan, which would involve a significant long-term commitment of state money. But lawmakers, including McFadden, said the governor and his staff have been involved in those talks.
"He appreciates and understands we have to accelerate the process," McFadden said.
In an interview this week, O'Malley called Alonso's plan "an interesting proposal" but predicted that if it were to be approved other counties would want similar treatment.
"Perhaps it's an approach that can work," he said. "Given the low interest rates, perhaps it's the right opportunity."
O'Malley said he has talked with the mayor about the plan and is continuing to gather information.
"I'm very interested in doing everything I can to strengthen education in Baltimore City and in other counties," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun