Dunbar rehab gets new life

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore school officials have reached a deal with the state and the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School community, ending a stalemate over plans for a major renovation of the east-side school.

Construction of a project expected to cost at least $25 million is expected to begin in the summer of 2007, concluding in 2009. The project is designed to turn Dunbar into a showcase school focusing on the health professions.

"We just think it's a tremendous victory at this point," said Carl Stokes, a spokesman for the Dunbar Advisory Board, a group charged with bringing the school up to par with Baltimore's other citywide high schools. "The real victory will be at the conclusion" of the project.

The Dunbar project has had what Eric Letsinger, the school system's chief operating officer, calls "a tumultuous history."

The system released plans four years ago to spend $48 million to rebuild Dunbar, which was once one of two city high schools open to blacks and whose alumni include financier Reginald F. Lewis and Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the state's highest court. The school's supporters say it deserves the same resources as Polytechnic Institute, City College, Western High and School for the Arts, which -- like Dunbar -- have admissions requirements.

But while the system spent $42 million building Digital Harbor High School, nothing happened at Dunbar.

Frustrations came to a head last fall, when the school system announced that it was locked into spending $17 million on the Dunbar renovation and Stokes, a former city councilman and mayoral candidate, accused the school board of racism.

Under state rules, the system was locked into the state funding that was approved for Dunbar three years ago. It could receive more money for the project only if it gave back the money it had already received, $1.8 million, and reapplied for funding.

Though Dunbar's supporters advocated returning the state money, system officials were reluctant to do so because of their strained relationship with the state.

"We have a bird in the hand," Letsinger said at a community forum in October.

Under the old funding formula, the system would have been eligible for about $10 million in state funds, and the city would have contributed $6.9 million.

Then this month, system officials met with Dunbar supporters, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and David Lever, executive director of the state's public school construction program.

The system agreed to return the $1.8 million and reapply for funding, a move approved formally by the city school board this week. In exchange, Grasmick and Lever agreed to keep the returned money in an account designated for the Dunbar project. Now, if anything goes wrong with the reapplication, the system can get back the money it returned.

Under the latest funding formula, the school system will be eligible for at least $22 million in state money, Lever said. The system will apply for the money as part of its request for school construction money for the 2007-2008 school year, listing the Dunbar project as a top priority.

(Because local school systems' requests for money far exceed what's in the state pot, the state generally defers to local priorities in determining how to distribute the money it has. The city's contribution declines under the new calculations.)

While the project won't be everything Dunbar supporters initially envisioned, Stokes said, current plans would involve a total renovation inside the school. Landscaping and changes to the outside of the building will be left out, though Stokes said he hasn't given up on finding money for those upgrades.

The amount of state money the system is eligible to receive depends in part on the number of students projected to be enrolled. Current enrollment is below 600, the result of the system requiring the school to cut the number of students it admits to make room for construction. System officials want to rebuild the school to serve 900 students, Stokes said, while the Dunbar Advisory Board wants to see it built for 1,200.

Building the school for more students would result in more state money, but school board Chairman Brian D. Morris said the system must determine the school's size based on what will work best for the academic program Dunbar plans to deliver.

Another logistical issue has yet to be worked out: whether the Dunbar students will stay at the school while it is being renovated or move to an alternate location. Stokes said the advisory board wants to find an alternate site -- possibly nearby Dunbar Middle School, which has extra space -- so that construction can be completed more quickly.

Morris called the Dunbar deal an example of what can happen when city school system and state officials stop bickering and work together.

"It's a great win ... for those students," he said. "This can be applicable to so many levels of what's happening in the school system."

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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