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Schools seek $25 million

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore school officials met with City Council members yesterday and confirmed that incomplete or shoddy repair work was done at 40 schools, then asked for $25 million from the city surplus to help pay for repairs and renovations.

City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake and Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke asked school officials to explain why spot checks by state inspectors revealed that school employees had falsely reported making repairs and had permitted shoddy work. The irregularities were reported this month by The Sun.

Before school officials spoke, Clarke criticized the school system's handling of the repair work.

"What bothered people the most is the thought that work which wasn't done was reported as complete," Clarke said. "That's dishonesty at the root of the system. The bigger question is, how do you fix that?"

During the session, none of the school officials directly addressed Clarke's allegation about dishonesty. But J. Keith Scroggins, the city schools' chief operating officer, said a school system inspector should have checked to see that the work was done properly and that steps have been taken to ensure that such lapses do not occur again. He said vandals were responsible for damaging some of the repair work after it was done.

Scroggins said the city school system had sent a letter to Mayor Sheila Dixon seeking $25 million from the city surplus that had been pledged for school renovations. About a year ago, then-Mayor Martin O'Malley pledged that the money would go to the school system and the move was approved by the council last June. But Dixon's administration recently redirected $5 million of that money to after-school programs.

Scroggins said the $25 million would be added to $120 million in the school system's capital improvement budget that has been earmarked for upgrades at 55 schools over the next year.

The $25 million "would help us out to have more insurance," Scroggins told the council. He did not give council members details on how the money would be spent.

In a phone interview after the meeting, Kevin Seawright, the school system's deputy chief operating officer, said the money would be used to make up a projected $11 million deficit.

Seawright said some money would be used to hire consultants to look at the feasibility of building a new school.

"It's really imperative that we have that money to get done all we need to get done," he said. "If not, we'll have to come up with other possible ways of reaching our goal of renovating schools."

Last night, a spokesman for the mayor said Dixon would see that the $25 million is turned over to the school system.

"The school system will get that $25 million, but there are some protocols that we will go through for school construction," said Anthony W. McCarthy, the mayor's spokesman.

Scroggins said major overhauls totaling about $28 million are set to begin at Paul Laurence Dunbar and Carver high schools. About $28 million has been earmarked for upgrades set for schools receiving students from seven schools closed by the city school board in February.

About $44 million of the school system's capital budget is devoted to repairs, including replacing boilers, roofs, elevators and lighting fixtures.

Seawright said the system will have to spend some money to fix the problems detailed in The Sun.

Last fall, state inspectors performed routine maintenance inspections at 40 city schools and found 585 building deficiencies ranging from minor infractions to potential safety hazards. Last winter, the city school system reported to the state that many of the problems had been corrected or were in the process of being fixed.

But in February and March, the state inspectors returned to five of the schools and found that nearly two-thirds of the repairs that the system had said it made were incomplete or not done at all, prompting a scathing confidential letter from a high-ranking state official to state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

State officials said they believe that Scroggins did not knowingly provide incorrect information but was given inaccurate reports by members of his staff. Scroggins has since taken disciplinary action against one person in management.

Scroggins, who has been in his post for about a year, said yesterday that he is working to provide more accountability in his department and has hired an executive director of facilities to personally oversee repairs at the schools.

Blaine Lipski, who is in charge of the repairs, has inspected 14 of the schools and expects to have visited all 40 by next month.

"He's made headway in getting those repairs serviced," Scroggins said at yesterday's meeting with Clarke and Rawlings-Blake.

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