Mayor, Alonso join to seek new school construction approach

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and city schools chief Andrés Alonso, who have pushed separate plans to renovate Baltimore's crumbling schools, presented a united front Tuesday in Annapolis as they asked state legislators to radically alter the manner in which school construction funds are provided to the city.

But the bill on which they testified — which would guarantee the state's contribution to city school construction, allowing the city to leverage bonds with the proceeds — could be in jeopardy. Legislative analysts and the state's top school construction official cast doubts on the measure.

"We have demanded that our students improve their academic performance, and they have. We have demanded that our teachers provide more quality education, and they have. Now it's time for us to ensure that the quality of Baltimore City schools facilities meets the quality of these achievements," said Rawlings-Blake.

Testifying before the House Appropriations Committee, Rawlings-Blake and Alonso said that if the state's annual contribution were provided as a block grant, the city could use the funds to float large sums of bonds to address the estimated $2.8 billion in needed school construction and repairs.

"We believe what we're asking for is an effective and responsible use of state money," Alonso said.

The two were accompanied by a phalanx of students, parents and activists who are part of the Transform Baltimore campaign, which is spearheading the cause of repairing the city's schools.

"As one of the wealthiest states in the nation, it's inexcusable that our schools should suffer from inadequate physical facilities," said Marietta English, head of the city teachers union and a coalition member.

Sharon Gorenstein, a school psychologist, testified about the difficulties of attempting to evaluate and counsel children when her office was freezing cold or very hot.

The mayor, who has laid out plans to float $300 million in bonds to fix schools, introduced a bill Monday in the City Council to increase in the city's bottle tax. She says the revenue would fund a large portion of the debt service on the bonds. Alonso has pushed a proposal that goes further, leveraging the city and state's annual contribution to school construction to float as much as $1.2 billion in bonds.

The bill discussed Tuesday, which was introduced by Del. Keith Haynes, a Baltimore Democrat, would require the state to pay the city $32 million annually, which is less than the average amount provided to the city for school construction over the past five years — although significantly more than the average paid over the past 20 years.

But the state's chief of school construction raised concerns about a component of Alonso's plan. David Lever, the executive director of the public school construction program, said that the if the state's funding for school construction dropped considerably, the city would receive a far larger share of the funds than other jurisdictions. "We don't think that's fair," Lever said.

Lever also said that devoting most of the state's contribution for debt service would hinder the city's flexibility to pay for emergencies.

The state Department of Legislative Services raised concerns that the use of the state funds to leverage bonds could "negatively affect the state's credit rating."

"The commitment of State funds is open-ended and may prompt bond rating agencies to conclude that the debt issued by the corporation and repaid with State funds is State tax-supported debt," the department wrote in a fiscal note attached to the bill.

Alonso and Haynes said that a number of amendments, drafted with Lever's aid, could alleviate those concerns. But Del. Keiffer Mitchell, who has championed school reconstruction efforts and introduced a related bill, said he thought time was running out for the bill.

"The mayor and school system need to be on the same page," said Mitchell. "I'm worried we're putting the cart before the horse."

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