5:43 PM EST, January 24, 2013
A proposal making the rounds in Annapolis to enlist the Maryland Stadium Authority in overseeing a massive overhaul of Baltimore's aging school buildings is clearly an attempt to bring the issue to the front burner in this year's General Assembly session. As a practical matter, there's little enough difference between this idea and one previously put forward by city schools CEO Andrés Alonso that it's worth adopting if doing so would prompt lawmakers to support the investment necessary to meet Baltimore's massive needs.
No one questions that the problem is urgent: Seventy percent of city schools are in poor condition, with leaky roofs, broken heating and air-conditioning systems, boarded-up windows and outmoded science labs. Baltimore can't thrive or attract new residents if its schools are dilapidated and unsafe, and asking parents to send their children to learn in them sends a terrible message about how little the city values their education.
Mr. Alonso's plan was announced last year after a systemwide survey of city school buildings that found more than half of them in serious need of repair or replacement. That survey echoed earlier findings by the ACLU and other groups, which estimated the costs for needed construction at $2.8 billion — more than Maryland has allocated for all school construction in the state over the last decade. The state school construction funds the city presently receives are a drop in the bucket compared to the need, and the piecemeal way those funds are allocated essentially only allows the city to manage the continuing decline.
The Alonso proposal, modeled after an approach that has been successful in other states but which is untried in Maryland, involved creating a private, nonprofit entity that would raise money for school construction by issuing bonds. The bonds would be backed by existing state and city funding streams for school construction, but instead of getting the funds on a project-by-project basis, as the schools now do, the state would send them to the third-party agency in the form of a block grant every year. Under this novel funding mechanism, the schools chief estimated as much as $1.1 billion could be raised for the first phase of the effort.
But some lawmakers have questioned whether the nonprofit agency envisioned by the schools chief would have the financial and management experience to handle such a huge project in a way that protected the state's investment. Others worry that the state or the city could be stuck with a massive debt liability if market conditions changed and the third-party nonprofit was unable to repay its investors.
Those questions might not be so threatening, however, if the Maryland Stadium Authority, which has had long experience in overseeing and managing large construction projects, were to fill the role of the third-party nonprofit envisioned in Mr. Alonso's initial proposal. And giving that responsibility to the agency might not be as much of a stretch as it seems.
While the authority is well known for its work in creating Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium, it has taken on a number of other projects over the past 20 years, such as construction or expansion of the convention centers in Baltimore and Ocean City, the Hippodrome at France-Merrick Performing Arts Center and projects at the University of Maryland, College Park. It also had a role in the preparations for the Baltimore Grand Prix.
Given reports of financial mismanagement in the city schools in recent years, it's understandable that state lawmakers have been wary of Baltimore's proposal. But lawmakers who might be reluctant to pour state funds into an independent city nonprofit with no direct mechanism for state oversight or accountability may be more willing to support Baltimore's school construction effort if they know the stadium authority is keeping tabs on how the money is being spent.
That's not just a politically expedient solution that allows lawmakers to approve massive school construction spending in Baltimore City when their own districts are hurting. It's also good public policy — and perhaps even a model for other jurisdictions that will need to upgrade their school infrastructure in coming years. If bringing in the Stadium Authority provides a more politically palatable means of getting Baltimore's project off the ground, that's good not only for city schoolchildren but potentially for children across the state as well.
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