School facilities bill advances in council, with limitations

The Baltimore City Council voted Monday to advance legislation that would establish a fund for improving city school facilities but stifles a plan to have the council pay for the effort through the city's general fund.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly voted for an amendment proposed by Councilman Edward L. Reisinger that struck out the council's ability to designate general funds controlled by the mayor to pay for the improvements, such as athletic facilities, equipment and supplies. The account could be funded with other sources, such as grants and donations.

"Will this legislation solve all of our problems? No," said City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who co-sponsored the bill, which passed 9-5, but voted against the amendment. "But it is a huge step in the right direction."

A final hearing on the bill is scheduled for June 13. If approved, the bill would go to the mayor. Because the bill would require an amendment to the city's charter, it would need to be approved by residents on the Nov. 8 ballot.

The legislation was spurred by a study published last year by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland that found that the school system needs an estimated $2.8 billion to repair and rebuild its infrastructure. In a follow-up report, the ACLU recommended creative models for the city, such as public-private partnerships, to fund the improvements.

After Monday's vote, ACLU advocates said the amendment undermined the intent of the bill.

"The mayor already has the power to appropriate funds to improve school buildings, so it would seem that this amended bill doesn't accomplish anything," said Bebe Verdery, director of ACLU of Maryland's Education Reform Project.

In the wake of the ACLU report last summer, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake created a task force on school construction that was due to release a report in February. The mayor's spokesman said the report will be released this month.

"It's even more crucial now that the mayor's task force put forward a substantive solution to address the urgent needs of city school buildings," Verdery said.

The city's finance department opposed the bill in its original form at a hearing last week, arguing that it would limit future administrations' ability to fund their priorities. All of Baltimore's school buildings are owned by the city.

"Mayor Rawlings-Blake and the City Council are committed to funding school construction and renovation improvements for students and teachers in a fiscally responsible way," the mayor's spokesman, Ryan O'Doherty, said of Monday night's vote.

He noted that the mayor has continued to fund the city's state-mandated obligation to the school system; the city also helped the school system secure more state funding for capital improvements this year.

City leaders debated the legislation during proposed amendments, including one from Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke that would have shifted the power of administering the funds to the Board of Estimates, a body largely under the mayor's control.

"It seems to be a great deal of concern about prerogatives," said Clarke, who also chairs the council's Education Committee.

Before her proposal was voted down, Clarke said: "We always find the money we need for what we want most."

Council members also said during the debate that they saw no viable revenue stream for the account.

Keith Scroggins, chief operating officer for the school system, said the system embraced any efforts to help improve facilities. He said the school system is working jointly with the mayor and others to come up with new alternative funding methods. Still, he said, the urgency continues.

"[We] have been very impatient about the pace of progress and level of funding city schools has received with respect to improving the physical condition of our schools," Scroggins said. "We appreciate all efforts to publicize our need, and make efforts to help fund [improvements.]"

Councilman Nicholas D'Adamo said that while he cares about children, he believes that too much emphasis is placed on money as the way to fix the school system's ills.

He suggested that the city look to downsize and close more schools that are underenrolled rather than continuing to funnel money into them, likening the school system to a "bucket with a big hole in the bottom."

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