Senate panel OKs Baltimore school construction bill

A Senate committee approved legislation Wednesday that would launch a $2.4 billion plan to rebuild aging Baltimore city schools, putting the measure on an apparent fast track toward final passage.

The Budget & Taxation Committee cast a bipartisan 13-0 vote to approve the House-passed bill, which would provide the first $1.1 billion for the plan, with no substantive amendments. That means that if it passes without further changes on the Senate floor, the measure would likely avoid a conference committee and quickly land on  Gov. Martin O'Malley's desk.

The plan is expected to let the city school system replace about 15 schools and renovate about 35 others over the next six years by providing $60 million a year -- $20 million each from the state, city government and the school system -- over the next three decades to let the Maryland Stadium Authority float bonds to jump-start the school renovation plan.

Winning approval of a massive school reconstruction effort was the No. 1 priority of city lawmakers this session, but passage of such a measure came into the session as a long shot.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and city schools chief executive Andres Alonso came into the session backing a plan based on a guaranteed $32 million guaranteed state block grant to the system to help pay debt service on the bonds for the first phase of the plan. But that concept ran into skepticism on the part of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who was concerned that it would in effect issue bonds backed by bonds -- possibly jeopardizing the state's credit.

Backers of the plan found an ally in House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who worked out a compromise with the Senate and the governor on a somewhat scaled-back plan. The measure passed the House with bipartisan support last week.


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