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State lawmakers hopeful for city schools facilities plan

Lawmakers across Maryland lauded the Baltimore school system's ambitious $2.4 billion blueprint to shed underused school buildings and upgrade the most dilapidated ones — calling the plan a critical first step in securing financial backing from the state.

But they said Wednesday that the plan still will face hurdles — including some sentiment that the city should contribute more funding — when educators, politicians and advocates begin their lobbying for the 2013 General Assembly session.

"They definitely needed a well-thought-out plan, and this seems to be one," said Del. Norman H. Conway, an Eastern Shore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

Having visited city schools, he considers new facilities a "dire need." But he added that while Baltimore's political leaders have pledged support for improving the system's infrastructure, there still needs to be a conversation about how the local government can increase financial support for schools even more.

"The amount of funding for public education from the city needs to be looked at and increased, to any degree that they can," Conway said. "They've got tremendous issues, but this changes priorities for the whole city. That conversation is going to be a necessity for additional state aid."

The 10-year plan announced by schools CEO Andrés Alonso on Tuesday would close 26 school buildings and rehabilitate 136 others to align the system's infrastructure with its student population and 21st century educational needs.

The bold, broad proposal is contingent upon the system's securing a state commitment to provide the city at least $32 million in capital funds annually in the form of a "block grant." That would allow the city to borrow billions, and pay the money back over 30 years.

Lawmakers stopped short of approving such a measure in the 2012 legislative session, asking school officials to develop a plan outlining facilities needs, an assessment of capital resources, and a vision for what the far-reaching program would look like decades down the line.

"I don't know that the plan is enough to commit, but it's a step in the right direction," said Republican Sen. David R. Brinkley, a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee who represents Frederick and Carroll counties.

Brinkley said that while the plan will likely be a work in progress, he expects the system will still have to grapple with closing schools to devote more resources to the classroom.

"Nothing about shutting down is easy," he said. "But we have to see them taking some pain, because we're asking to possibly take away from other areas down the line."

State officials were still combing through the 213-page booklet containing 177 recommendations and a school-by-school analysis. Within the 26 buildings proposed for closure are 12 schools that would be relocated, and 17 that would shut down.

By 2025 the system would be using 77 percent of its space — it currently uses 65 percent — and the number of school buildings would drop from 163 to 137.

Although the first year of construction would not start until 2014-2015, the system has recommended closing four schools at the end of this school year: Baltimore Rising Star Academy, Garrison Middle, Patapsco Elementary/Middle, and William C. March Middle. Those schools, officials said, have utilization rates between 20 percent and 50 percent, and struggle academically.

The Baltimore school board is scheduled to vote on the 10-year plan on Jan. 8. Each recommendation outlined in the plan will have to be approved on an annual basis.

The $35 million annual commitment seemed a less daunting task than in previous years when the state was "treading water" financially, said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., chair of the Education, Business and Administration Subcommittee.

"I think that is a doable amount of money, and hopefully, Congress won't pull the rug from underneath us with this fiscal cliff," said the Montgomery County Democrat. "And I think the plan will help fill in the blanks, so it's a little less of a 'Trust Me' kind of arrangement."

While lawmakers around the state expressed some reservations about the school system's plan, Madaleno said that doesn't mean they don't care about Baltimore's students.

"It leaves the impression that legislators from elsewhere in the state don't care about the city, or are not supportive of them, which couldn't be farther from the truth," he said. "Things look much brighter for the state, and this is probably the most significant thing we could do during the 2013 legislative session — for what it would mean for the economic development of the city, and ultimately for the whole state."

But the concerns for fairness and equity are warranted, said David G. Lever, director of the state's Public School Construction Program. Lever expressed reservations about the system's requests last year, particularly about sacrificing the state's future flexibility for an investment in one district.

"We've done a lot of research and it appears that the block-grant approach could be done," Lever said. "The question is: If the amount of state funding decreases in the future, where does that leave the other districts, and where does it leave the state's flexibility to respond to emergencies?"

Lever had just received the city plan, and said staffers in his office was preparing to pore over it to determine if they would support it this year.

He said there are four key components of a viable program of this magnitude: educational vision; the 10-year plan, a management plan, and a financial plan.

"All of those have to work together," he said. "Right now, the educational vision is well-developed, the management plan has been presented to us in concept, and the financial plan, we have not seen yet. When we see how they work together, and develop a high level of confidence to carry out a $2.4 billion project, then we'll be in a good position to move forward."

A new component of the city system's plan is the creation of an independent school construction authority that would oversee several aspects of the sweeping program.

State lawmakers said the authority will play a crucial role in boosting confidence in the system's ability to be good stewards of taxpayer funds. The plan comes in a year marked by a series of financial missteps and questionable spending under Alonso's administration.

In the 2012 General Assembly session, the city opposed legislation proposed by Baltimore Del. Kieffer J. Mitchell Jr. — who has repeatedly called for more oversight in the system — to create the authority. The bill died in committee, but he plans to refile the authority bill in the 2013 session, and will meet with Alonso in the coming weeks to discuss it.

"The underlying theme in Annapolis was the accountability piece, and that's why I had proposed the schools construction authority," Mitchell said. "So, it's encouraging that there's a plan with that" built in.

Alonso said in a statement that the system was focused on developing the block-grant concept last year, and was not ready to commit to something it hadn't fully vetted.

"A year later, we understand that an authority is instrumental in securing the necessary support to gain legislative approval of the 10-year plan," he said. "And we have had the time to explore all legal aspects and the possible role of the district and its partners in the oversight of this work."

Alonso said the membership and parameters of the authority would be public when legislation is introduced, but its main purpose would be fiscal and management oversight. The final decisions on the plan would still ultimately lie with the school board.

Mitchell said he believes that while the plan is still a heavy lift, the city's combined strength can do it.

"The frustration I had last year was that the mayor and school system were singing off of different music pages, it was evident from the hearings, and from talking to my colleagues from different jurisdictions," Mitchell said. "But as long as we're all on the same page, let's get it done."

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