Lawmakers dismayed college projects delayed to replace Baltimore's jail

The closed Men's Detention Center, once called the Baltimore City Jail, at right, is not visible from the street.
The closed Men's Detention Center, once called the Baltimore City Jail, at right, is not visible from the street. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Maryland lawmakers are criticizing Gov. Larry Hogan's proposal to delay five college projects, including a new business school and a student services building at historically black universities in Baltimore, to build a $480 million jail in the city.

The proposal has incensed Democratic lawmakers who say the Republican governor is shortchanging Baltimore. They question the governor's budgetary choices as the nation is debating high incarceration rates for black men and the lack of job and educational opportunities.


"The symbolism here is all wrong, and I think the investment would need to be rethought," said Morgan State President David Wilson. "An investment in Morgan would reap dividends. It would enable young people in Baltimore City to break the cycle of poverty, and it will enable them to get jobs."

Under Hogan's plan, which must be approved by the General Assembly, Morgan State University must put off designing a new student services center to replace a leaky, aging building for another year. And Coppin State University would have to wait two more years to turn a science building into a new business school.


A spokesman for Hogan defended the jail project but signaled a willingness to negotiate. Spokesman Matthew A. Clark said the governor is "certainly willing to have discussions on the capital budget."

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus in Annapolis are so dismayed by the delay of the Coppin and Morgan projects, along with other decisions made by the governor, that they are considering staging a news conference at the gate to the governor's mansion to air their concerns. Some say the governor's office has not been willing to listen to their feedback.

"What he's doing with the money is building jails," said Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat and Morgan State alumnus. "This is so disheartening."

A long-term solution to the city's poverty and violence must include educational opportunities for young people, and Morgan State and Coppin State are part of that, said Del. Curt Anderson, another member of the caucus and a Democrat who leads Baltimore's House delegation in Annapolis.


"What are your priorities?" Anderson said of the governor's budget proposal. "A short-term solution is to lock up people. ... The jail can wait."

In July, Hogan abruptly closed Baltimore's Civil War-era jail, which has been run by the state since 1991 and was the target of a lawsuit over conditions for detainees. It also was the setting for a corruption scandal involving the Black Guerrilla Family gang, which authorities said was essentially running the facility until 2013.

Hogan proposes to spend $480 million to build a six-story facility that would house men and women, and include space for education and drug-treatment programs. Sixteen buildings on the 27-acre corrections site would be demolished. Next year's proposed budget includes $16.5 million for demolition and $18.2 million for design of the new jail.

Civil liberties groups praised the closing of the dilapidated jail. A month before the closure, they sought to reopen a lawsuit over what they described in court documents as conditions so bad they bring "shame to this city."

Some black leaders see the jail as a necessary evil, but say the historically black colleges offer hope and a path out of poverty for black children in the city.

"None of us are crazy about the jail," said Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP. "We know we need it, but we don't want to put anyone in it."

She said that the historically black colleges do not get the resources they need and that the state should encourage young people, particularly young African-American men, to attend them. A coalition of Maryland's historically black colleges alleged that the state has systematically underfunded them and that the state's traditionally white colleges unfairly duplicated their programs — a legal case that is being mediated in federal court.

"They need to see growth and development," Hill-Aston said. "We definitely need to have the colleges fixed up. All of this is part of morale-building, as far as I'm concerned."

State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, an East Baltimore Democrat and the longest-serving member of the city delegation, said: "The optics of it are not good when you say you're going to defer a higher education building to build a jail."

State Sen. Lisa Gladden, a Democrat who represents Northwest Baltimore, was blunt. "It's an insult," she said.

But Del. Nic Kipke, the House minority leader, said the governor has to find money for the new jail somewhere.

"For decades, the jail had been ignored and no one came up with a solution for it," the Anne Arundel Republican said. "Governor Hogan is acting as a leader and doing the right thing — first, having closed the facility and then coming up with a plan to replace it."

The governor has to make difficult choices about construction projects while keeping the state's budget balanced, said state Sen. Andrew Serafini, a Washington County Republican who serves on the Budget and Taxation Committee.

"The Baltimore city jail is a project that to say it is overdue would be an understatement. The taxpayers and the state can realize significant savings by accelerating this project. The other projects are very important as well. ... The governor is not saying 'no' but just maybe 'not now,'" Serafini said.

Baltimore lawmakers are not the only ones crying foul about Hogan's delaying college construction projects to free up money for the jail. Other delayed projects include a biosciences building at the University System of Maryland's Shady Grove campus in Montgomery County, a project at the multi-university Southern Maryland Higher Education Center in St. Mary's County and a life sciences building at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Montgomery County lawmakers said in a letter to the governor that they were disappointed with his "unilateral decision" to spend money on the jail, causing a three-year delay for the Shady Grove biosciences building.

"The fact that you and your staff failed to even discuss excluding or delaying long-standing capital projects for higher education before announcing the plan to devote $480 million to a new jail is simply inexplicable," the Montgomery lawmakers wrote. They extended a standing invitation to the governor to attend their weekly meetings on Friday mornings to explain his decision.

They say the biosciences building would help train students to work in high-tech science careers. Montgomery County built a $26 million parking garage for the building, and lawmakers were expecting to see $72 million in the state budget for the building.

"Now the governor has pulled the rug right from underneath us," said state Sen. Richard Madaleno, a Montgomery Democrat.

"We're just asking for fairness to have some of the money back for a project that would lead to jobs," said Del. Shane Robinson, a Democrat who leads Montgomery's delegation to Annapolis.


The Southern Maryland Higher Education Center is working on an $80 million building to house research focused on drones and other autonomous devices. While the project is scheduled to get $3 million from the state for design this year, there's no money the year after that to start construction, said Joe Anderson, chairman of the board of governors.


Anderson said he hopes to impress upon the governor the importance of the building, though he acknowledged that Hogan is making tough choices in the budget. "He's got a lot of demands, and they're all excellent projects," Anderson said. "It's a balancing act he has to do."

UMBC's $120 million life sciences building would house research space for undergraduates as well as room for 40 faculty members and more than 100 graduate students. With the added space, the university hopes to secure millions of dollars in grants for research projects.

"While we understand there are many competing budget priorities, we ask elected officials to view this building as an important asset for college degree completion and the growth of Maryland's economy," Bill LaCourse, UMBC's dean of natural and mathematical sciences, said in a statement.

Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, chairwoman of the city's delegation to the state Senate, said Baltimore's lawmakers want to meet with Hogan to let him know that they would rather put money toward education than the jail.

"You can't know our priorities if we don't have a conversation, and we look forward to having that conversation," said Pugh, who is running for mayor.

Morgan State's president said the new student services building is badly needed. The present building acts as the "front door" to the campus, and it is not a welcoming one, Wilson said. The state money would pay for a new building at Hillen Road and Cold Spring Lane that would house financial aid, the registrar and other offices.

The university got $1.6 million from the state last year to start designing the building and expected $7 million more this year to complete the planning process, Wilson said. The original timetable would have had the new building open in 2020. Now it might take until 2023, which is too long because the current one is already dilapidated, he said.

The building is in such poor shape that Wilson said he might consider moving employees into portable trailers if the new building is delayed much longer. "It's just that bad," he said.

Coppin State's project involves turning the Percy Julian Science Building on North Avenue into a new home for the business school, offering better-designed space for more students. Business classes now occupy one floor of an aging building, said Ronald C. Williams, dean of Coppin's College of Business. The university was counting on receiving $3.4 million to plan the renovations.

Williams said the project is needed to help lift the community. Coppin is located in West Baltimore, a center of unrest in the city last spring after the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man from the area who suffered a fatal spinal cord injury in police custody.

"We recognize as a college of business that we have a real role to play in the economic development in West Baltimore and Baltimore City," Williams said.

With the new building, the business school hopes to expand its programs that nurture entrepreneurs and educate the community about financial literacy.

"Delaying funding delays progress, and delaying progress is not an option for us right now," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Erin Cox and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.