As school facilities crumble, executive suites get remodeled

Jerome Oberlton, chief information officer, stands in his office in the newly renovated IT area of the Baltimore City School headquarters on North Avenue.
Jerome Oberlton, chief information officer, stands in his office in the newly renovated IT area of the Baltimore City School headquarters on North Avenue. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

New furniture, a flat-screen television, decorative light fixtures, interactive white boards — these are among amenities the city school system bought during $500,000 in renovations to the central office, even as administrators decried the state of crumbling school buildings and sought funding to fix them.

The biggest project was a $250,000 face lift of an executive suite for the district's chief of information technology, who said the remodeling work was done in part to impress job candidates and repair unsafe conditions.

The renovations, undertaken since January 2011, were outlined in contracts and invoices obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Maryland Public Information Act request.

City school officials said the renovations were necessary upgrades, but city schools CEO Andrés Alonso called the executive suite remodeling "a bad judgment call." Alonso has sought support for a proposal to leverage state dollars to finance $1.2 billion in school construction. The district's school buildings need an estimated $2.8 billion in repairs.

"This was a bad judgment call, given our focus on improving outcomes for children," Alonso said of the suite. "Especially at a time when we are trying to find a way to renovate our schools."

Some changes were made after The Sun inquired about the renovations. Roughly $41,000 in custom-made furniture was ordered for the new suite, but city school officials canceled the order. Instead, furniture was brought in from the district's warehouse, resulting in a $37,000 savings.

Critics said renovation money should go to schools first.

School board President Neil Duke said the 147-year-old district headquarters building on North Avenue is emblematic of the system's facilities problems, but added: "As long as there are schools going without," he said, "we should go without."

The projects didn't need approval from the school board.

The school system's dilapidated school infrastructure has been a hot-button issue, with community leaders and educators campaigning and staging protests aimed at securing more funding. In recent months, advocates and students have rallied from City Hall to the State House for basic necessities like working water fountains, desks, and windows for natural light.

On Wednesday, Alonso appeared before the City Council's Education and Youth Committee to testify about his borrowing proposal for facilities improvement and to advocate for a new bottle tax proposed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake that would allocate $10 million that would be leveraged into $300 million for school construction.

"I think it's a most unfortunate expenditure as we begin a major campaign to raise the money we need for our children's facilities," said Mary Pat Clarke, specifically referring to the basement suite. She chairs the City Council's Education Committee and is a staunch supporter of the school facilities campaign. "But, on we go."

Clarke said she was optimistic that the school system could learn from this situation.

"Let's just look at it like this: If you can do that at headquarters, just think about what we could do and how fast at our schools," she said. "But, from now on, everywhere, all money goes to kids first."

The $500,000 dollars spent at central headquarters since January 2011 went for 11 renovation projects in eight departments, according to contracts and invoices.

Other big-ticket projects include $94,000 spent on relocating employees and furnishing offices during Alonso's 2011 reorganization of the central office. Upgrades like fresh coats of paint on office walls, carpeting, new furniture and cubicles were provided to relocated employees.

About $76,000 was spent to renovate the school system's board room, where the school board and other public meetings are held. The room was refurnished and equipped with technology to broadcast the meetings to the public.

The refurbishment of the technology department's executive suite, located in the basement of central headquarters, involved three projects, according to contracts and invoices.

Glass doors welcome visitors to the suite, which was outfitted with wood laminate floors, a new glass-encased conference room with a pull-down screen for privacy, two interactive white boards called SMARTboards, kitchen equipment, new furniture, a vaulted ceiling, and new ventilation for heat, air conditioning and air quality.

The project was ordered by chief information technology officer Jerome Oberlton, who came to the city from Texas and the private sector in March of last year.

He said that many of the repairs were necessary to improve conditions in the dungeon-like environment, including water leakage from the ceilings, poor air quality and molding carpet. Heavy condensation also threatened to destroy technology housed in the department.

Oberlton said the space was an eyesore, repelling talent. Two candidates turned down positions in the department because of the poor working conditions they would be subjected to, he said.

"One of the biggest challenges for me since I came to the system has been to recruit and retain people who can help me move the goals of the CEO forward," said Oberlton, who once served as the chief information technology officer in Atlanta Public Schools.

The most extensive upgrades were in the IT department's executive suite, which houses seven employees, including Oberlton. The renovations were paid for out of the department's budget, Oberlton said, by scaling back on other programs and projects.

The information technology department has 89 employees total, many of whom were relocated from the heavily remodeled area to other basement offices, some of which were outfitted with new cubicles. Upgrades to build a "creative and efficient space" will continue throughout the department, which is looking to fill six positions, Oberlton said.

"I understand it's Baltimore, and the challenges, but I can't help move the system forward if I don't have good people," Oberlton said. "And when I saw good people walk out the door and not come to city schools because of this, I knew we had to do something."

Keith Scroggins, chief operating officer for the school system, said that renovations at the headquarters "are not out of the ordinary" when a new manager is hired. "The difference in this building is that we don't use capital funds, and have to squeeze departmental budgets to do renovations," he said.

Unlike schools, he said, the central office doesn't have a capital budget specifically designated for renovations. If managers have money in their departmental budgets, they are free to use it for renovations.

Scroggins said the system does the minimum in needed renovations at central headquarters, where Alonso has continually cut jobs and resources to give money to schools. He added that much of the IT department's renovation was less expensive than it looks. For instance, the floors are laminate rather than hardwood.

Community education advocates said they hope the recent renovations don't undermine support for school construction and thwart the momentum they have built.

"It's something [the school system] should be cognizant of in light of what's going on, and how that can be perceived, and used against us in light of all the needs in our schools," said Bishop Douglas Miles, who co-chairs Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a group of clergymen that joined forces with the ACLU of Maryland and other city groups to demand better school facilitates.