Students at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, talk about the cold temperatures in the school as they leave for the day. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)
With Baltimore schools closed due to frigid conditions, state lawmakers called Friday for changes to a system of awarding construction funding that has forced the school system to return millions of dollars in state money for much-needed repairs — while Gov. Larry Hogan blasted what he deemed “mismanagement” in the schools.
“First of all, I’m outraged at the failures in Baltimore City,” Hogan said. “Because of their ineptness and mismanagement they have wasted $60 million that they were forced by law to return to the state because they didn’t fix these problems.”
School leaders contend that the problems are not the result of mismanagement but of a state construction system that disadvantages school districts that do not have the money to pay for projects up front.
Baltimore school board chairwoman Cheryl A. Casciani said school officials pointed out the problem to the state’s school construction agency this fall, and agency administrators agreed to stop partially funding projects each year. She applauded the efforts of state legislators to find a permanent legislative fix, but added that more money to finance school repairs is needed in the short and long term.
“We can blame it on anybody we want; the reality is that there hasn’t been enough money to invest and then the pipes burst,” she said.
Casciani said she hopes to use the attention focused on the issue this week as a catalyst to organize public and private funding for a near-term solution.
Mayor Catherine Pugh said she was ordering city engineers to assist school maintenance workers to expedite repairs at the schools. The Democratic mayor called the conditions “unacceptable.”
City school spokeswoman Edie House said the Department of Public Works, the mayor’s office and Baltimore Gas & Electric are working together to get heating problems resolved over the weekend.
“We will be working through the weekend to address the facilities issues,” she said. “Our goal is to open schools on Monday.”
The forecast is for persistent frigid weather through the weekend, with highs in the teens on Saturday and low 20s on Sunday, but a return to more typical winter temperatures next week with highs in the 30s and even 40s.
Since 2009, city schools have lost out on roughly $66 million in state funding for repairs after approved projects ran afoul of state regulations meant to prevent waste, after the repairs grew too expensive or took too long. The money could have funded dozens of new heating systems at schools where the heat is now failing.
Baltimore’s representatives in the General Assembly say the city has found itself in an unusual position. Other school systems — such as Baltimore County and Montgomery County, which are better funded by their local governments — have the money up front to fund repairs to their buildings. They then ask the state for reimbursement.
The Baltimore City school system, whose local government contributes much less for repairs, is forced to estimate the cost of projects, leading to mistakes and rescinded funds, lawmakers said.
Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who is chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, said she is calling a meeting next week to address the issue.
“There has to be a fix, particularly for the projects that have to do with the health and safety of children in Maryland, that you don’t have to give the money back,” she said. “You have to have flexibility to get the project done.”
Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat, said pictures of schoolchildren in frigid classrooms should make leaders feel ashamed.
“We need to be looking at not just funding but regulations on returning money,” she said. “The process right now penalizes poor districts. This is the institutional equivalent of ‘it’s expensive to be poor.’ ”
Hogan, a Republican, put the blame squarely on Baltimore officials and called on them to provide more funding for the schools. He said the city spends only 11 percent of its budget to support its school system, while the average county spends more than 50 percent.
“We’ve got to get to the bottom of what’s going on in North Avenue,” Hogan said of city school headquarters. “We’re going to continue to hold them accountable.”
Maintenance at Baltimore schools came under intense scrutiny this week as heating systems failed in some schools during the extreme cold. School system administrators say they received complaints about lack of heat at 60 school buildings. The Baltimore Teachers Union urged the city to shut down all schools until officials could get a handle on the heating problems. Politicians have sparred on Twitter over who was to blame for the conditions.
The school system announced Thursday night that schools would be closed again Friday to allow for continued repairs to broken pipes and potential water main breaks.
“Our facilities staff has been working tirelessly, and we have made significant progress in resolving issues in numerous schools,” said Sonja Santelise, the school system’s CEO. “However, as this unprecedented stretch of extremely cold weather continues, new problems are arising as fast or faster than we resolve existing ones.”
As awareness of the problem spread, a 22-year-old Coppin State senior launched a GoFundMe page with the goal of raising $20,000 to bring heaters, coats, hats and gloves into the city’s schools. The fundraiser drew national attention, collecting more than $58,000.
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tweeted, “Why, so often in America, do we allow the children who need the most to get the least? Anyone who tells you we value all children the same is lying.”
Nikkia Rowe, the principal of the Renaissance Academy High School in West Baltimore, is hosting a coat drive at her school from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Monday.
“This is not a phenomenon that’s just occurring,” she said of the lack of heat at many city schools. “This has been building for a very long time.”
Rowe said she hoped the dire situation of the schools would raise awareness about the need for the funding decisions to change.
“This moment in time will define whether or not the children in Baltimore City receive their just due,” she said.
Casciani said the system doesn’t get as much money from its municipality as neighboring jurisdictions.
“Our more affluent neighbors have local funding sources they can tap to pay for large projects like replacing outdated heating systems,” she said in a statement. “Baltimore County, for example, has $116 million this year. Here in Baltimore City, where there are many competing capital demands for aging infrastructure, we have $17 million allocated for school capital costs.”
Breaking News Alerts Newsletter
As it happens
Get updates on the coronavirus pandemic and other news as it happens with our free breaking news email alerts.
The problem has been exacerbated by Baltimore’s move to close schools as student population declines. Officials have been reluctant to use limited funds to pay for expensive repairs at buildings slated to close.
Del. Cory McCray, a Baltimore Democrat, called on the state to step in with emergency funds for repairs.
“Whose fault is this? This is definitely the school system’s fault and it’s the city’s fault and it’s also definitely the legislature’s fault,” he said. “The state has to step in. There has to be emergency funding. The city doesn’t have the money.”