It seemed like a simple, good-news announcement: The city gives a loan so that a public school serving severely disabled children can renovate its kitchen and cafeteria.
But the effort by Mayor Sheila Dixon to assist the William S. Baer School - and a similar loan by the city to help with renovations at the Baltimore School for the Arts - is raising questions about whether it's fair for public schools with wealthy or influential backers to jump ahead of others more in need of repairs just because they can raise the money themselves.
The conflict came to light this week amid behind-the-scenes struggles by Dixon's staff over the logistics of announcing the loan with Andres Alonso, the new city schools chief.
When the mayor's office originally released Dixon's schedule for this week, it said she and Alonso would appear together at the William S. Baer School to announce the $245,000 loan.
The problem was, the mayor's staff had forgotten to invite Alonso - and neglected to secure his permission to hold a news conference at one of his schools. When Alonso learned Monday of the event, he asked that it be moved to City Hall, where it was held yesterday. The schools CEO was notably absent.
"This is a loan from the city of Baltimore," Alonso wrote in an e-mail to The Sun. "The school system is not involved."
The city is lending the money to Baer's 30-member parent and community advisory board, whose membership roster - according to its chairman - reads like a "who's who of Baltimore."
Before approaching the city, the board had requested a loan from both the state education department and the school system. Both agencies turned down the request because of concerns of unfairness to other schools that have been in the pipeline for years to get money for renovation projects.
Yet twice this summer, Dixon has signed off on loans to schools with active fundraising boards, in a city where many schools don't even have PTAs. Last month, the city's Board of Estimates approved a $2.5 million loan for continuing construction at Baltimore School for the Arts. Before that, the city's finance director said, he doesn't recall the city ever giving such a loan.
Dixon, who took over as mayor when Martin O'Malley became governor in January, is running for a full term in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary.
City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., one of her opponents in the primary, questioned whether the loans are politically motivated.
"There are schools asking for basic needs, new windows, doors on bathrooms ... fighting tooth and nail trying to get these renovations," Mitchell said. "Obviously, some of these schools have more political clout based on their boards to get things done in the middle of an election year."
U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who just endorsed Dixon, is on the School for the Arts board.
But Dixon said the loans, which are interest-free, are part of an active role her administration is taking in the city schools. "The schools are a part of the city," she said. "Sometimes you have to work outside the box to see if you can make things happen."
No one disputes that Baer is in need of the extra assistance. The school serves 260 of the city's most severely disabled students, 200 of them in diapers and 90 on feeding tubes. They range in age from 3 to 21.
A parent and community advisory board has been raising money for the school independently for more than two decades. The board was created in the mid-1980s at the request of then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, said Graham Kastendike, an insurance broker and the current chairman. It has raised about $3 million over the years, footing the bill for items including air conditioning and a wheelchair-accessible miniature golf course.
Now, board members want to improve the school's kitchen and cafeteria with a $325,000 project that will include installing large televisions to broadcast educational programs while students are eating or being fed.
The Dorothy L. and Henry A. Rosenberg Jr. Foundation will donate $200,000 for the project over the next three years: $80,000 this year and $60,000 for each of the next two years. (Henry Rosenberg is the former head of Crown Central Petroleum Corp. His wife and her daughter are on the Baer board.)
Since board members want to do the project now, they sought a loan to cover costs until they get the rest of the Rosenberg money and could raise the difference.
The state's Interagency Committee on School Construction denied the request, even though the school has a special place in the heart of its chairwoman, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who began her teaching career at Baer in 1961. William Reinhard, a spokesman for Grasmick, said the committee could not allow Baer to bypass all the other schools in the state that have been waiting years for construction money.
Next, the Baer board members asked the city school system for the $245,000 loan. Then-interim CEO Charlene Cooper Boston turned them down.
The last stop was city government, where they found a sympathetic ear in the city's finance director, Edward J. Gallagher. Gallagher said he approached the mayor, who had visited the school recently, and she enthusiastically signed off on the loan.
"There's always a concern about a precedent being set, but, God, this is such a good program and for what kids were being served, I just thought it was worth giving consideration," Gallagher said.
To obtain money for construction or renovation, public schools typically need to enter a statewide application process, where funds are extremely limited and can take years to obtain. The state distributes funds based on the priorities of local school systems.
Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Dixon, said Alonso requested that yesterday's news conference be moved to City Hall because the repair work at the school has not yet "officially been approved by the CEO."
Nevertheless, McCarthy said, Dixon and Alonso are on good terms. "They've had dinner a couple of times," he said. "They're working very well to build a relationship."
McCarthy said Alonso wasn't able to attend the news conference because of a scheduling conflict, and it was "an oversight" that he wasn't invited sooner.
"The mayor really wanted him to be present for the presentation, but I'm afraid that was not communicated to him in a timely manner," McCarthy said.
Alonso also said he and Dixon are on good terms. "The mayor and I are building a great relationship in order to help the city schools," he wrote in the e-mail. "There was an oversight on the part of staff. No big deal."
He said he did not have sufficient details about the Baer project to know what type of permission is required before construction can begin. It might be necessary to obtain permission from the state, as well as the school system, he said.
"I of course will try to support the school [to] accomplish its goals in whatever way I can," he added, "after I am fully briefed as to the details."