School officials agree to have answers for city

Baltimore school officials agreed yesterday in their weekly meeting with Mayor Martin O'Malley to explain by Friday how they have spent millions in city-backed bonds on school construction projects.

Their answers might determine whether they regain control of such money in the future, city officials said.

The agreement to provide answers helped ease tensions between North Avenue and City Hall that emerged publicly last week when the O'Malley administration proposed taking control of the $17 million budgeted for repairing school buildings next year.

O'Malley's budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 was approved by the city's spending board after the planning commission recommended that the city's Department of Public Works, not the school system, manage the city bonds that go to the school construction budget.

The recommendation was based on the commission's findings this year that the Baltimore City Public School System had not spent about $97 million in approved construction money from the state and city over the past five years. Those unused funds included $38 million in city bonds.

In a letter to schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland, the commission wanted answers to 10 concerns regarding the system's capital spending. The recommendation to the Board of Estimates last week, which Copeland "vehemently" opposed, came when school officials failed to answer those concerns.

Jeffery N. Grotsky, the school system's chief of staff, said yesterday that the 10 concerns would be answered and that Copeland would present those answers during her scheduled budget hearing May 11 before the City Council.

"I think this will sort itself out," Grotsky said.

Planning Commission Chairman Peter E. Auchincloss is expected to provide a recommendation to the council at that hearing on who should manage the school system's construction budget. If school officials do not adequately answer the commission's 10 concerns, Auchincloss would be expected to make the same recommendation he made last week.

"It all depends on how the 10 points are answered," said Otis Rolley III, director of the planning department.

Even if the commission changes its recommendation, there is no guarantee the council will agree.

At the council's luncheon meeting yesterday, several council members expressed frustration over how the school system has spent construction bonds. Council President Sheila Dixon said that she was not confident that school officials could provide adequate answers.

"I don't think they have their act together," Dixon said. "We have to tighten up on this [capital spending]. Ultimately, it's the kids who suffer."