Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Baltimore schools chief Andrés Alonso told legislators Friday that the city needs more flexibility in spending the school construction money it gets from the state — seeking a change that would let the school system take on many projects at once rather than seeking approval for one at a time.
Testifying separately before the city's House delegation in Annapolis, the mayor and schools chief both expressed their commitment to develop a major construction program to improve Baltimore's dilapidated school buildings.
But Rawlings-Blake remained noncommittal about a proposal Alonso outlined this week for an ambitious, $1.2 billion program that would require a sixfold increase in the school system's borrowing authority.
"We are ironing out details," she said. "We have the same mutual goal in mind."
The mayor, who has outlined a more limited plan to float $300 million in bonds backed by new city revenues, would not say how close the city and school system are to reaching common ground on an approach.
"It depends on the day of the week it is. Some days we're closer than others," Rawlings-Blake said.
Asked whether Alonso had gone public with his plan too soon when he outlined it Tuesday for the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, the mayor sidestepped the question.
"Dr. Alonso is aggressive when it comes to reforming the school system," she said. "I am not going to second-guess his strategy."
One issue on which the two agreed is the desirability of changing the system under which the state gives the city construction aid on a project-by-project basis. Instead, they would like to see a block grant under which the city schools would have more flexibility.
Rawlings-Blake said that approach would, for instance, let the system launch a multischool program to renovate air conditioning and boilers rather than seeking approval from the state school by school.
Alonso expressed support for the mayor's plan to raise money for school construction by increasing from 2 cents to 5 cents the tax on bottled beverages sold in the city. But he said he was open to other approaches as well.
"I'm very agnostic about how to find the money," he said.
Rawlings-Blake said she has seen nothing yet to persuade her to back off the beverage-tax proposal, despite opposition from the industry and grocers. She said the administration has found it to be the revenue source with the most support from residents. Industry opponents, the mayor said, have given her anecdotes about a negative economic impact but no hard data.
Alonso preceded the mayor at the witness table, telling lawmakers he believes he's found a way to bring about a massive school renovation program by ensuring a predictable stream of combined city and state revenue of $70 million to $80 million a year and then borrowing against it.
"We think it's possible that we can do something that's 40 years in the waiting," he said. Now is the time to borrow a large sum because of low interest rates and construction costs, he argued.
"We can do it if we have a predictable source of funding," he said, emphasizing that he is not seeking an increase in state funding but a guarantee of the $32 million to $35 million the state has been averaging in recent years.
The plan faces questions because it appears to rely on one stream of debt — the state general-obligation bonds used to finance school construction — to support a new round of borrowing, bonds issued by the city or an independent authority. It also contemplates the schools issuing 30-year bonds, where state bonds have a 15-year term.
Warren Deschenaux, the General Assembly's chief policy analyst, said he wouldn't rule out the scheme just because it's "outside the box."
"It's a unique proposal and needs to be vetted from all angles," he said.
State Sen. Verna Jones-Rodwell, a Baltimore Democrat who sat in on the House delegation meeting, said Alonso's proposal has been well received in her chamber. She agreed that the state should move to something more like a block-grant system and expressed optimism that the mayor and the schools chief would come to an agreement on a construction plan.
"I think they are on the same page," she said.