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Educationby Fern Shen1:45 pmApr 3, 20130

School construction plan gets long-sought Annapolis approval

The Maryland Stadium Authority, not the city school board, will oversee rehabilitation and new construction.

Above: Mayor Rawlings-Blake announcing passage of school construction bill, recalled her late father’s commitment to the issue.

In February, the mayor vowed before a crowd of thousands in Annapolis that a $1.1 billion school construction bill for Baltimore’s dilapidated public schools would pass.

Late last night, it did.

After a 102-30 vote in the House of Delegates (coming after a 40-7 approval in the Senate), legislation commencing a dramatic 10-year project to overhaul city public schools facilities moves on to sure approval at the desk of its highest-level backer, Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake looked somber at this morning’s Board of Estimates meeting while hailing the bill’s passage as a vital step in her plan to increase the city’s population by 10,000 families.

She praised City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and other local politicians for their support and spoke of the commitment of her father, the late Delegate Howard “Pete” Rawlings, to public education.

She said the Council’s passage of the bottle tax “proved to legislators in Annapolis that the city would put resources on the table.”

The legislation passed last night commits the city, state and school system to spending $60 million annually to leverage $1.1 billion needed in revenue bonds to implement the first phase of a plan to renovate 35 schools and replace 15 of them, after decades of neglect.

Victory Lap

City schools and their advocates have long complained of inadequate heating, cooling and ventilation in half-century-old buildings, resulting in classrooms that are sometimes sweltering, and at other times frigid.

Compared to their private and county school counterparts, city students have had to endure leaky roofs, flooding toilets, outdated science labs and inadequate computer facilities.
After pressing Annapolis on the issue for decades, the advocates allowed themselves a victory lap today.

“The passage of this bill represents a huge step toward achieving the goals that we outlined three years ago,” said Bebe Verdery, director of the Education Reform Project at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, in a released statement.

“We believed that if solutions based on successful school construction models in other states and districts were presented and developed, we could build a campaign of support among those most affected – students, teachers, parents, school leaders- and gain the support of elected officials. Today, we thank those officials for championing this new law.”

Bishop Douglas Miles, clergy co-chair emeritus of BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development), also praised the city’s leadership.

“The school district, the mayor, the city delegation and our state leaders heard the cry of the parents, teachers and students of Baltimore for better buildings. This is the single biggest investment in neighborhoods in the history of Baltimore,” Miles said. “It truly marks a watershed moment.”

The Baltimore Education Coalition, which included education, religious and civic groups, among them the ACLU, is planning a victory celebration tomorrow (Thursday) at 2 p.m. at Cross Country Elementary/Middle School.

The event will give the media a look at a school that is “particularly deficient in its technology set-up” and a chance to watch students write letter thanking legislators, according to BEC organizers.

Financial Oversight

Under the plan, the state, city and school system would each contribute $20 million annually to back bonds for 30 years or more to pay for a decade of upgrades.

“The state’s $20 million will come from lottery proceeds; the city’s share from future gaming revenue, the beverage container tax, and additional aid generated from retiree health funding; and the school system’s share will be generated partially from the savings associated with closing buildings, and operational savings as the more efficient, modern buildings come online,” Verdery said in a statement.

The strategy was initially modeled on the funding mechanisms used successfully in other cities, notably Greenville, S.C. As the coalition pursued a similar comprehensive funding approach in Baltimore, however, it was met with concern over the amount of money sought and concern about the school system’s ability to monitor spending.

The current plan is a modified version of the initial proposal, which would have obligated the state to give the city about $32 million per year over 30 years in the form of a block grant to cover $2.4 billion in infrastructure repair and replacement.

Another feature that smoothed passage in Annapolis was the designation of the Maryland Stadium Authority – not the city school board – to oversee the massive spending as design and construction work moves forward.

The authority will serve as the financing agent and oversee the implementation of the plan to be approved by the school board. The state’s Interagency Committee on School Construction (IAC) will maintain its role in approving projects in the plan.

A Memorandum of Understanding among the city school system, the city, the IAC and the stadium authority must be completed by October 1, 2013.

–Mark Reutter contributed to this story.

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