House committee passes school construction bill

With bipartisan help from sympathetic lawmakers, Baltimore won a House committee's approval Tuesday for a $1 billion plan to replace and repair old schools.

The Appropriations Committee voted 21-3 to send the plan to the House floor. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch agreed on the legislation this week.

Fixing the city's ailing schools is a top priority of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore schools chief Andrés Alonso and city legislators.

Under the proposal, the state, city and school system would each kick in $20 million a year over at least 30 years to back bonds. The money would let the city launch an accelerated program to build about 15 new schools and to renovate about 35 more.

The plan scaled back an earlier block grant proposal developed by Alonso that raised concerns that it in effect issued bonds backed by other bonds. For the second day, school system officials declined to comment on the new plan.

Even with the modified plan, some lawmakers expressed concern that the program would be too generous to the city.

"I'd love to have really beautiful schools in Baltimore County. I'd love to have air conditioning in all our schools," said Republican Del. Susan Aumann. "This is a lot of money for one jurisdiction."

Aumann was one of three Republicans to oppose the bill, while four supported it.

The plan got support from some lawmakers of both parties who hail from distant parts of the state.

Del. John Bohanan, a St. Mary's County Democrat, noted that Baltimore has the oldest schools in the state, with an average age of 39 years and some buildings that are more than a century old.

"The city of Baltimore is unique. It is different," he said. "This is a creative solution for a problem that has existed for a really long time."

Bohanan, a close ally of Busch, gave city leaders credit for contributing two-thirds of the resources.

"They are really putting some skin in the game," he said.

Bebe Verdery, director of the education reform project of the Maryland ACLU, called the plan a "great first step" for the city schools.

"Delegates from all over the state realized the health of Baltimore City is important for the whole state and they care about the children in those school buildings," she said.