Critics seek more oversight of renovations at school district headquarters

Outraged education, community and political leaders have called for increased oversight of spending in the Baltimore City school system, amid revelations that about $500,000 was spent to upgrade offices at the district headquarters while city and state leaders fought for funding to fix dilapidated school buildings.

Since January 2011, the school system has undertaken 11 renovation projects in eight departments, The Baltimore Sun reported this week. Half of the money went to renovation of a single department: The information technology office, which has spent $250,000 largely to transform an executive suite with new amenities such as interactive white boards.

"These expenditures were certainly inappropriate given the conditions in our Baltimore schools," said Terence Cooper, spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers-Maryland, the parent organization of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

The city system is facing an estimated $2.8 billion need for construction and renovations at schools, some of which are troubled by hazardous conditions such caving ceilings, leaking pipes, broken toilets, and scarce classroom equipment.

"We understand that you couldn't address the conditions in the schools with $500,000," Cooper said. "But it's an indication of the priorities and the perspective of those in the schools administration who obviously don't place the children first."

Calls for reform ranged from implementing procedures to ensure renovations are approved by the chain of command at the North Avenue district headquarters to requiring school board approval. Critics also said such expenditures should be publicly vetted, just like school construction projects.

State Del. Keiffer Mitchell, a Baltimore City Democrat, said the renovation spending at central headquarters "screams the accountability question." Mitchell has repeatedly introduced legislation in the General Assembly in recent years to return schools to mayoral control, from the current structure of a city-state partnership. He has also advocated for more funding to improve school buildings.

"Of all the times, this definitely was not the time for this to happen," he said of revelations about the renovations.

City school officials said department heads are permitted to do renovations if they have the money in their operating budgets and noted that capital funds earmarked for school construction were not used. While schools CEO Andrés Alonso called the IT department renovations "a bad judgment call," officials said broader oversight isn't needed.

District spokeswoman Edie House Foster, in a statement Friday, said officials "will be reviewing our expectations with department heads and the city schools management that approves the renovations."

"We are confident that these steps will prevent similar problems in the future," she said.

While the city's school board is required to approve contracts of $25,000 or more, the specific expenditures related to the renovations did not need to be approved by the body.

Instead, the board signed off on so-called requirement contracts, which grant approval for construction work but do not detail specific expenditures. The idea is to give the district flexibility to spend funds without getting board approval for every individual project.

The district's chief financial officer confirms that funds are available in a department's budget before renovations can go forward, and officials review invoices to ensure the quotes reflect industry standards.

Many of the central office projects include routine maintenance and upgrades such as fresh paint, new carpeting, new cubicles and office furniture for employees, according to contracts and invoices obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Maryland Public Information Act request. And several projects fixed deficiencies such as leaking ceiling pipes and molding carpet.

But the $250,000 renovation of the Information Technology department not only included critical maintenance repairs and revamped space necessary for employees and data systems but also amenities not seen anywhere in the system, documents show.

Wood laminate floors, frosted light fixtures, kitchen appliances, a glass-encased conference room, a flat-screen television, and new state-of-the-art technology. The system stopped a $41,000 order for custom-made furniture after The Sun inquired about the project, and instead brought in furniture from the district's warehouse, saving $37,000.

The district's chief of information technology, Jerome Oberlton, hired by the district from the private sector last March, said he was motivated to do the renovations in part to attract and retain highly qualified job candidates. Two had turned down jobs due to the poor conditions they saw during interviews, he said, including unsafe conditions in the basement where the department is located.

He said he didn't believe the renovations were excessive. "I feel like what's important is to build an environment that people want to be in," he said in an interview this week. "For me, it's about people."

The renovations comes as city and state leaders as well as community activists and educators lobby for additional funding for school repairs. Alonso has sought support for a proposal in the General Assembly to leverage state dollars to finance $1.2 billion in school construction. Though the measure failed, a host of supporters rallied behind the plan in Annapolis and promise to put it forward again next year.

Meanwhile, state legislators are preparing to head back to Annapolis for a special session in the coming weeks on the state's budget. The city stands to lose $34 million unless additional revenue is raised. Mitchell said news of the headquarters renovations would make it that much harder for the Baltimore delegation to convince their colleagues in other jurisdictions of the city's financial plight.

"I feel bad for the advocates, for everybody who comes down to Annapolis and who work very hard to fight for funding the schools," he said. "It kind of takes the wind out of all our sails."

On Wednesday, Alonso appeared before the City Council's Education and Youth Committee to testify in support of a new bottle tax proposed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. That plan would raise $10 million that would leveraged with other funds to float $300 million in bonds for school construction.

Ryan O'Doherty, the mayor's spokesman, said Friday, "Dr. Alonso has taken responsibility and accurately described the renovations as 'bad judgment.'"

Neil Duke, president of the city school board, said the board is in the "early process of thinking through what happened" with the renovations. He said board members had expectations that departments would practice prudence.

When asked whether the school board should approve such expenditures, Duke said that "it might not be prudent to act too reflexively by over-regulating an issue that is easily mitigated by sound and practical judgment."

Some activists said the school board should have oversight over renovation expenses.

"I think it's a clear case here, where the process of procedure has to be overhauled," said Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the local chapter of the National Action Network, which has campaigned for better school facilities.

Cheatham, who said district officials made an "ill-timed and ill-fated decision" on the renovations, also said this situation fuels the debate about whether or not the school board should be partially elected.

"We need a few individuals that are answerable to the community," he said.

In addition to extensive school construction needs in the system, the district is cash-strapped and Alonso has continually targeted the central office for job and resource cuts every year.

Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, noted that in the last two years, the system's budget crunches have resulted in teachers having trouble finding permanent placements.

"It was just poor decisions in how they are spending money," she said.

The city Parent Community Advisory Board said it is requesting a meeting with the system's leadership, to "determine what action is being taken, and to ensure that this does not happen again."

"We are losing teachers and principals, parents are advocating in Annapolis for better funding for our schools," said Melanie Hood-Wilson, on behalf of the group's executive board. "And expenditures of these sorts are outrageous."

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