City school board OKs 10-year facilities plan

The Baltimore school board approved Tuesday a sweeping plan that would close or renovate more than 150 schools, with the goal of bringing the oldest school infrastructure in the state up to 21st-century standards in one decade.

The board voted unanimously to approve the $2.4 billion plan, introduced by city schools CEO Andrés Alonso in November. The vote came on the eve of the 2013 legislative session, and a day after Gov. Martin O'Malley said he would devote $336 million to school construction this year.

The system's 10-year plan will rely heavily on persuading lawmakers to approve a measure that would allow the system to borrow more than $1 billion, and pay it back by securing at least $32 million in funding from the state over several years in the form of a block grant.

The district, with the support of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and advocates, plans to use the 10-year plan to lobby lawmakers for the block grant commitment this session. The city's delegation has identified school funding as its top priority.

"We haven't made history yet, but we will," Jimmy Stuart, co-chair of the Baltimore Education Coalition, said of the board's approval. The coalition will hold a rally in support of the plan in Annapolis in February.

In response to a question Monday, O'Malley said he was open to the idea and looked forward to learning more about the proposal.

School officials in Baltimore County, which has a larger population and the second-oldest infrastructure in the state, are considering a similar plan. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said Tuesday that education funding will be his top priority in the Assembly session and that he'll seek $123 million for school renovation and construction projects.

The city's plan would close 26 buildings, shut down or merge 29 programs, and renovate or rebuild 136 facilities. All of the actions will require annual school board approval.

The first schools affected will close at the end of this school year: Baltimore Rising Star Academy, Garrison Middle, Patapsco Elementary/Middle and William C. March Middle.

Northwestern High School, which is recommended for closure in 2015-2016, is the only high school on the list. Alumni and community leaders said they also plan to take their fight to Annapolis.

"We plan to protest and question the decisions about several schools and about the whole process," said the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon.

The district built the plan from a $1 million study it commissioned, known as the Jacobs Report, that detailed the infrastructure needs of every school building in the city. The report also identified where the system's buildings were grossly underused.

The 10-year plan also seeks to align the district's population with its infrastructure, by increasing the system's overall utilization rate for its buildings from 65 percent to 77 percent. The number of school buildings would decrease from 163 to 137.

The district held several public hearings on the 10-year plan, which has garnered mixed reactions.

At the board meeting Tuesday, representatives from some schools continued to express concern about the safety of displaced students, while others lauded the plan as a renaissance for their communities.

Other education leaders expressed concern about the battle the city faces as it looks for support in the Assembly.

Jimmy Gittings, president of the city's principals union, said he believes the system needs to focus on a series of financial missteps documented in the past year, notably a scathing state audit that found the system's spotty oversight of its biggest expenses — salaries and contracts — led to the loss or mismanagement of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The audit, the first conducted under Alonso's administration, came during a year in which he has had to defend questionable expenses such as $78,000 in overtime to his personal driver, $500,000 in administrators' credit card charges that included expensive dinners and travel, and a $250,000 renovation of an executive suite.

"I find it disheartening that you appear to be spending more time on the system's buildings than its people and fixing the numerous issues raised in the 2012 legislative audit," Gittings wrote to school officials Monday. "The system's success is far more dependent on the people in the schools than the buildings themselves."