3:52 PM EDT, May 21, 2013
Baltimore City's schools are Maryland's oldest, and Baltimore County's are the second-oldest. The problems posed by the aging facilities in the two jurisdictions are different — the city has an overabundance of underused buildings, while the county has for years been dealing with overcrowding in one region or another — but the first step toward a solution, county schools officials hope, may be the same: developing a comprehensive modernization plan. The city school system hired a consultant to help it evaluate its buildings and decide which should be closed, which renovated and which rebuilt, and that helped pave the way for state approval of a novel, $1 billion funding stream. The county has now hired a consultant of its own, but parents who are hoping for a similarly sweeping effort in the county shouldn't get too excited just yet.
County schools Superintendent Dallas Dance says he decided to conduct a comprehensive facilities review in hopes of moving beyond the cycle of responding to one crisis after another — a faulty boiler here, a leaky roof there, and a never-ending parade of overcrowded schools. Instead, he wants to get a better sense of what the county's priorities should be and to determine where it makes sense to renovate and where it would be more cost-effective to build new schools.
The need is certainly there. 80 percent of Baltimore County schools are at least 40 years old, and many are bursting at the seams. The problem is particularly acute at the elementary school level, where 59 of 106 schools were above 100 percent of their capacity at the beginning of this school year, some of them severely so. Hampton Elementary had the worst problem with 562 students assigned to a building with 307 seats, but overcrowded schools exist in every part of the county. Projects funded now through the county's capital improvement program would increase overall elementary school capacity to a level only slightly beyond current enrollment.
The lack of air conditioning in Baltimore County schools has received a great deal of attention — Comptroller Peter Franchot, for one, has made it something of a pet cause — and the county has made progress there. But many of the county's older schools are poorly equipped with modern technology — wireless Internet access is a particular problem — and are inefficient to run.
Mr. Dance has done what he can within the confines of his budget to increase the availability of technology in the schools, and County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has also taken advantage of greater efficiency in government and a modest rebound in tax collections to invest in new elementary schools and air conditioning for older ones. But what they can accomplish by continuing that course is limited, and it certainly pales next to what the city is poised to do.
If Baltimore City can get funding for a $1 billion-plus school construction and renovation plan, can Baltimore County? Maybe, but not without a change in the county's philosophy on how to fund its school construction program.
Baltimore benefited from some favorable politics — the school funding bill was implicitly linked with city legislators' support for the gas tax increase — but also from City Hall's willingness to put some skin in the game. The funding plan requires a sustained commitment from the state but also a promise of annual funding from the city and the school system, and in the city's case, that's backed by the expansion of the bottle tax. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake championed the proposal and put significant political capital behind it, and legislators would expect that much and more from relatively affluent Baltimore County.
The Kamenetz administration declined to comment on Mr. Dance's decision to develop a comprehensive facilities plan, but it would be shocking to see the executive follow the mayor's lead in this matter. The county has invested in its schools over the years, but locking itself into a decades-long funding commitment is not the Baltimore County way, and a tax increase for that (or any other) purpose would be anathema. Mr. Dance has said he watched the city's effort closely, but he says talk of how to pay for a schools modernization effort in the county is premature.
During the 1960s, when the county's population began to boom with transplants from the city, its schools were a major attraction. It built 63 of them during that decade. In the 40 years after that, it built just 35. Now Baltimore City is poised to build 15 new schools and renovate 35 others during the next six years, offering the possibility that the old regional dynamics will shift, if not reverse. Baltimore's leaders made that happen because years of grass-roots organizing by parents and advocates persuaded them to do it. If county parents want the same thing for their children, it will be up to them to demand something more than business as usual.
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