Angry phone calls reveal pricey city schools HQ project

By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Angry phone calls began pouring into The Sun a few months ago, describing renovations that were taking shape in the Baltimore City school system’s information technology department as fit for the executive of a private corporation.

Meanwhile, city school officials and advocacy organizations were in the heart of the Maryland General Assembly, passionately pushing a borrowing proposal that would leverage millions for school construction and renovation of the system’s decrepit facilities.

On March 10, The Sun filed a Maryland Public Information Act request seeking documents that would outline all renovations that have taken place at city school headquarters since January 2011. Soon after that request, more calls came in, reporting that word of the project had made its way up to the CEO’s suite, where officials were not aware of the caliber of remodeling taking place. Some of the orders were being canceled, plans for certain bells and whistles were being halted.

Thirty days later, the city school system responded to The Sun’s request with batches of contracts and invoices that outlined about $500,000 in renovations that had taken place across eight departments. Close to half of them, not including the canceled purchases, belonged to the basement. The Sun has not received the canceled invoices, though the system stopped a $41,000 custom-made furniture order after The Sun inquired about the project, saving $37,000.

City school officials were responsive to requests for interviews about the renovations, but said representatives from the paper needed to come before or after business hours to take photos of the space.

On Thursday, The Sun showed up at 7:30 a.m. to photograph the space, and meet Jerome Oberlton, the new chief information technology officer who had ordered the department’s refurbishment. Oberlton gave a tour of the space, holding nothing back about what he did and why he did it. What some called excess, he called making dedicated employees feel like they were in a professional environment.

A photograph that ran with the story that showed Oberlton smiling, which some found out of place. During the interview, Oberlton didn’t think the renovations were a laughing matter, but that’s about the only thing he and the rest of the city agreed on.

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