Dixon vows to build schools

The Baltimore Sun

Mayor Sheila Dixon committed yesterday to spending $250 million to build as many as 10 new city schools over the next decade, a slice of optimistic news in the otherwise grim process of reshuffling school property in recent years.

Speaking at a recently renovated elementary school in Highlandtown, Dixon said the city would use a mix of unusual financing methods to pay for the schools -- including some that have traditionally been associated with big-ticket development projects.

The announcement came less than three weeks before the Sept. 11 Democratic primary in which seven candidates are running to unseat Dixon. She offered few details about where the schools would be built, when construction might begin and how particular schools would be paid for.

But city officials said their plan could have broad ramifications not only for how schools are built but also for how they are integrated with the neighborhoods that surround them. Dixon, who was joined by new city schools Chief Executive Officer Andres Alonso, said she envisions the new school buildings becoming cultural and recreational centers for nearby residents.

"It is high time that we build some brand new schools in Baltimore," said Dixon, a former teacher. "We're not saying this in a document and then putting it on the shelf. We're going to put this into practice."

City officials said they will use tax-increment financing to pay for at least some of the new construction and renovation -- particularly in neighborhoods undergoing major redevelopment.

In tax-increment financing, cities generally borrow money to pay for construction and then pay the loan back with the increased value the completed project adds to the tax roll. A large hotel built on a formerly vacant lot, for instance, increases that property's value for tax purposes, which brings more money into government coffers.

City officials said they are planning to use that model to fund a new school tied to the sprawling, $800 million biotechnology park being built near Johns Hopkins Hospital. The city is preparing to borrow $60 million for the biotech project -- a portion of which will be used to pay for the new school. The city plans to use tax revenue from the increased value of the biotech project to repay the loan.

Dixon also discussed using sale-leaseback deals to pay for new schools. In those arrangements -- which are growing increasingly popular in cities and states across the country -- private companies purchase or construct the building and then lease it back to the city for a set term. The city ultimately reclaims ownership once the lease is up.

"One of the shocking things of coming into this city for the first time and the school system for the first time was the condition of many of the schools," Alonso said. "I think it's a civil rights issue to bring the schools to the standards that they need to be."

Faced with declining enrollment and deteriorating buildings, the city school board voted in 2005 to reduce the school system's operating space by 2.7 million square feet, or 15 percent, over three years.

At the time the system had space for 125,000 students but had only 85,000 enrolled. The state was threatening to cut off money for school construction and renovations if the system did not start operating more efficiently.

Even with the 15 percent space reduction, officials have projected the system will have room for more than 100,000 students, even though enrollment continues to decline. Officials are using the space reduction requirement to close most of the city's failing middle schools and expand elementary schools with surplus space to serve sixth, seventh and eighth grades as well.

The system is now completing the second of three annual rounds of school closures. Among the schools that have been closed: Elmer A. Henderson Elementary, Highlandtown Middle and Pimlico Middle. The buildings housing the Dr. Samuel L. Banks and Southwestern high school complexes also were closed, but all but one of the schools within those complexes were relocated to occupy extra space in existing buildings.

Ever since the decision for closures, school board members -- Chairman Brian D. Morris in particular -- have promised the community that in exchange for the painful cuts, the system will build new schools. Some city schools are in such disrepair that it would be less expensive to build new facilities than to renovate the existing ones.

In February 2006, school officials unveiled a $2.7 billion, 10-year plan that called for building 26 new schools and renovating dozens of others. No one expected to receive all the money outlined in the plan -- which was several times more than the state's entire annual budget for school construction -- but officials said they wanted to publicize the extent of the need.

One of the only spending disputes in this year's city budget debate focused on a decision by Dixon to redirect $5 million from school construction toward after-school programs. The money was part of a $25 million pledge to schools made by Dixon's predecessor, Gov. Martin O'Malley.

At the time, Dixon said the move was appropriate because the school system had no near-term plans to build new schools. Officials said yesterday's announcement was, in part, a response to that debate. Officials said they will hire a consultant to pursue the new methods to pay for schools.

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., one of the candidates running against Dixon, noted yesterday that he had introduced a nonbinding resolution in the City Council in 2005 that requested the city to create a school financing authority. The resolution, which would have applied only to charter schools, never advanced.

Dixon was president of the City Council at that time.

"We in the City Council, along with the people of this city and the mayor, have struggled long and hard through these required school closures over the last couple of years," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke. "It's nice to enter a new chapter now in which we're seeing schools to be built, schools to be fixed."

john.fritze@baltsun.com sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

Schools proposal

Details of Mayor Sheila Dixon's plan:

Spend $250 million to build as many as 10 new city schools over the next decade.

The exact locations of the schools have not been selected.

Tax-increment financing will pay for at least some of the new construction.

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