City announces school closings coupled with renovation plan

Advocates and city officials unveil a $2.4 billion, 10-year plan to shutter some schools and bring the rest up to date.

Sherrell Savage 6

Reacting to the announcement (from left): parent Sherrell Savage, Carol Reckling of Child First Authority, and Yasmene Mumby of the Baltimore Education Coalition.

Photo by: Fern Shen

As they have in the past as Baltimore’s population has plummeted, city school officials announced a list of school buildings to be closed yesterday. But this time the list of 26 proposed to be shuttered in the next decade came with another more hopeful one – 136 to be rehabilitated or rebuilt over that time.

It’s part of the ambitious $2.4 billion 10-year plan being undertaken by school officials and political leaders – after years of being “shamed,” as one speaker put it, by the ACLU and other advocates – to take on the mammoth task of fixing the city’s shabby, aging school facilities.

"It's about pruning," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said, at the news conference. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“It’s about pruning,” said Mayor Rawlings-Blake about the school closings. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Yesterday, as the list and some new details of the plan were unveiled at Calvin M. Rodwell Elementary School, many of those advocates and parents were clearly overwhelmed.

“There are not many moments when you realize you’re standing on the edge of something great,” said Sherelle Savage, a parent of three city school students and a member of the Baltimore Education Coalition, wiping away tears.

Selling It to Skeptics

Meanwhile, amid the celebration and upbeat remarks by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, schools CEO Andres Alonso and others, many speakers noted that they have a hard road ahead.

At the upcoming session of the state legislature, city lawmakers hope to win passage of a $32 million block grant bill, which the school system would use to ultimately leverage more than the $2 billion they estimate is needed to modernize Maryland’s most physically antiquated school system.

“Now we’re going to have to shame some legislators from other areas – from Baltimore County, from Montgomery County, from Howard County,” said Del. Curt Anderson, head of the city delegation in the General Assembly. Anderson said the delegation considers getting the bill passed their “number one priority.”

Baltimore city schools CEO Andres Alonso said  . (Photo by Fern Shen)

Baltimore city schools CEO Andres Alonso. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Making the task still tougher, however, may be the accounts of school system waste and mismanagement disclosed in audit reports released this year, fueling long-standing skepticism about money management at North Avenue.

Speaking after the event, school commissioner Bob Heck acknowledged that the audit findings hurt their cause but argued that they shouldn’t.

“Those accounting issues were from three years ago,” he said. “Many of those issues have been resolved.”

Alonso and Heck both pointed to the entity to be created as part of the 10-year renovation plan, the Baltimore Public School Construction Authority.

“We are going to keep it separate,” Alonso said, speaking with The Brew. He likened the organization to the Maryland Stadium Authority and said legislation to create it would be part of their campaign in Annapolis.

Asked if the a new authority would be physically located at school system headquarters on North Avenue, Heck said “probably, yes,” while Alonso said, “Those details will have to be worked out.”

School Closure Heartache

The even more pressing challenge for school officials is the battle they face not in Annapolis but in the city over the schools to be shut permanently, including four to be closed after this school year – Baltimore Rising Star Academy, Garrison Middle, Patapsco Elementary/Middle, and William C. March Middle.

At Northwestern High School, which is slated to be shut during the 2015-2016 school year, parents and students were stunned yesterday to hear that the school again faces closure.

But consolidation must accompany renovation, officials said.

The ACLU's Bebe Verdery and City Schools Chief of Staff Tisha Edwards after the 10-year-plan announcement. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The ACLU’s Bebe Verdery and city schools chief of staff Tisha Edwards after the 10-year-plan announcement. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“We can’t go to Annapolis and say ‘gimme’ . . . with schools that are 50% full,” Rawlings-Blake said yesterday.

“It’s about pruning . . . It’s not going to be easy. The decision to close schools is going to be rough all around.”

Alonso laid out the scenario and rationale. Over the 10 years, they’ll go from being a school system built for 121,000 to one designed for 105,000. (The current enrollment is about 85,000.)

By year 2025, he said, they’ll go from 163 school, campuses to 137 under the plan, which the school board must approve.

The plan would ensure they’re using 77% of their available space, instead of the current 65%, Alonso added.

While many across the city were expressing the concern over neighborhood schools, others were openly lobbying to have their schools benefit from any new funding first.

“We have exceeded our capacity by 119%,” said Mary Booker, Calvin Rodwell’s principal, tossing in a pitch for her school to get more space for teaching and special programs, like their unique culinary arts program.

“We would like to be on the short list,” she said, “not just on the list.”


As the advocates faced a phalanx of eight television cameras and girded for the next stage in their battle, they had the usual array of supporters by their side – city and state lawmakers, ministers and community activists.

And as always, there were teachers and parents with fresh accounts of the dilapidated surroundings for city school students.

“These are unpardonable conditions,” said Leon Pryora kindergarten teacher at Calvin Rodwell who talked about seeing pieces of ceiling tile fall from a classroom while it was in use.

“These are the children we are trying to help become the future lawyers, the future teachers. And that’s impossible to do with some of the conditions we have.”

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  • cwals99

    Isn’t it odd
    that given the history of systemic fraud in the financial sector that
    Baltimore wants to place its citizens again in the hands of Wall
    Street banks; more importantly regarding our schools? Baltimore has
    billions of dollars needing to come to the city that will easily pay
    for all schools to be renovated, no closing needed. Maryland courts
    ruled the state owes Baltimore and HBCU $800 million for decades of
    missing funds; the $25 billion mortgage fraud settlement, an interest
    payment towards hundreds of billions in Wall Street fraud brought $1
    billion to Maryland of which the AG simply placed close to $700,000 in
    the state’s general fund. These frauds were perpetrated
    overwhelmingly on communities now needing school renovation and as such
    that $700,000 needs to come to Baltimore and Prince George’s County. A
    second round of subprime mortgage settlements will bring billions
    more to the area.  We already have financial resources to easily pay
    all costs for renovating all Baltimore schools. Why enter into yet
    another agreement with a dubious character at a time when the economy
    is shaky and municipal budgets strained?

    If Baltimore’s mayor and city council enter this kind of agreement
    and the US falls into another recession, which is likely, Wall Street
    will receive control of these schools as the city defaults and Wall
    Street will sell ownership to private entities. That is why this
    credit bond leveraging is happening. Privatization of public schools. 

    • Michelle

      Can you please site the source of your information cwals99? I’d like to read more about  your claims in the first paragraph.  

      • cwals99

         Hi Michelle,  you can look at my website Citizens Oversight Maryland at last week’s blogs to see the articles from which I draw information.  I have read about the plan for over a year now as Wall Street made plans for its next money-making deals.  The European economic crisis is a combination of the same mortgage fraud scheme we had here in the US and this sovereign debt fraud where the government’s of Europe were loaded with debt and imploded.  That is what we see on the news as Europe’s citizens protest.

        Wall Street was behind that European sovereign debt fraud and now they are gearing up for the same scheme as politicians, especially here in Maryland, are using bonds to leverage all kinds of debt even as all state and local governments are struggling and the Federal government is maxed.

  • Barnadine_the_Pirate

    The physical condition of Baltimore’s institutions speak more than words about the city’s (and the state’s, and society’s) priorities.  The schools are a shambles, despite our pious mouthings about how important education is. The courts buildings are festering sewers, despite our pronouncements about the importance of justice.

    But we’ll get a new juvenile prison soon enough — the second in recent memory.

  • Rocky_Ground

    Let’s take a moment to celebrate a very important day for Baltimore’s schools and our kids. This is the first time in my memory that all of the players (mayor, school board, legislators, parents and advocates) are working together on systemic reform. Well done, ACLU, BEC, Alonso, et al…

  • discer

    At the risk of sounding cynicalI I will believe it when I see it. Have heard similar rhetoric in the past.

  • Car0l

    It was an impressive coalition of support at the event on Tuesday.  While a terrific kindergarten teacher and the principal of the host school did a beautiful job, it is sad that the official representatives of the systems thousands of employees  – the Balto Teacher’s Union nor the Administrators union were there.  They should have applauded their members at Calvin Rodwell and also stated how they will support this efffort    – with clout and people in annapolis, calls etc. If successful, this plan will mean greatly improved working conditions for their hard working members.  Maybe the Brew could ask them what they think and how they plan to help……

    • cwals99

       I would like to tell Carol that the Baltimore Teachers Union and Administrator’s Union are looking out for the kids and are taking a strong stand against what we know is a perilous deal for the city schools.

  • trueheart4life

    This is Baltimore, Maryland land of dumb, greedy politicians … So for anyone to suggest that smart allocation of scarces fiscal resources is possible must be dillusional!  This 10-Year Plan, out of necessity, was created to bypass the recalcitrant bureaucracy which has consistentely fail our children.  An idiot knows that we have sufficient funds in our coffers to make the dramatic renovations/improvements in our schools to bring them into the 21st century, however the political will does not exist to do it.  I along with many other advocates are not willing to wait another 3 decades for the utopic alignment of right-minded politicians to emerge … This creative, alternative financing proposal is new and different.  It represents a solution that does not need the annual begging and pleading that occurs during each legislative session, thus removing the political ineptness from the solution set.  A long-term financial strategy that leverages annual revenue and YES uses our school buildings as collateral is the heart of this grand bargain.  Yup this sounds very familiar to what occurred in the recent financial bubble, but the bottom line this time is the profit motive is the future of our children’s educational opportunities … NOT Wallstreet!  This generation of students deserve immediate action … But inaction is NOT an option ~ So get over it!!! 

    • cwals99

       Trueheart is sounding like Fraser Smith with the ‘get over it’ but as I almost always agree with her I would encourage more research because this deal will come back to bite the children if it indeed goes through.

      Unlike the subprime mortgage fraud where the public assumed politicians were looking out for us, we are now doing the research and shouting loudly and publicly when we see a scheme.  I understand the desire to move forward with a necessary project, but an organization like the NAACP, for example, has the financial resources to make already available money come to Baltimore.  Let’s do that!

      • trueheart4life

        As I’ve said, delusional thinking is how we will remain in a do-nothing coma.  The NAACP has NO “financial resources to make already available money come to Baltimore”.  As chairwoman of the local NAACP chapter’s Women In the NAACP committee I think I’d know otherwise … that utopic alignment ain’t gonna happen!!!  I too encourage you do more research … STOP playing political games with our children, give them the educational environment they deserve NOW.  Take the do-gooder fight to another place and time!!!

  • Mark Adams

    There are significant accountability issues that would accompany the transfer of power over school construction to an unelected revenue authority.

  • cwals99

    I will step out of this discussion by saying that everyone is now sensitive to the nature of Wall Street deals and I think there is a high level of concern from many families as to what is needed to make this deal happen.  This is not a do-gooder fight, it is a political stance where we must make people responsible for crime and corruption as it is taking down our society.  This school deal ignores all of that history and adds to the public’s indebtedness rather than moving us towards the opposite. Can one organization like the NAACP do it….I think the national chapter could use Baltimore as precedent as these bond deals are happening all across the country.  They certainly can’t do it alone.  Being public about the downside of policy will sometimes flush out supporters!

    It is not only this school deal, we see the same thing with these development deals where all transactions are tax free and capture the public in deals where corporations have little financial stake.  Of more concern to me is my knowledge that Wall Street wants K-college to be privatized and they will get it if we are not diligent.  One doesn’t have to look far to see the signature all over Baltimore.

  • george e. mitchell

    Don’t close Langston Hughes Elementary School. Best performing school in area.

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