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Published in Print: March 23, 2005, as City to Take Over Upkeep of Baltimore Schools

City to Take Over Upkeep of Baltimore Schools

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The Baltimore school district will hand over the daily maintenance and upkeep of schools to city agencies, under an agreement reached last week.

The deal between the school board and Mayor Martin O’Malley’s administration comes two months after the mayor urged school leaders to give the city government the job of managing their facilities.

“Educators should have responsibility for academics,” the mayor said in his State of the City speech on Jan. 31. “But educators are not necessarily well trained to manage boilers and roofs and buses.”

The poor condition of many Baltimore schools, some of which were built in the 1920s, has increasingly drawn criticism from parents, teachers, and community activists.

The Democratic mayor already has increased his administration’s involvement in the 91,000-student district with a “Believe in Our Schools Campaign,” which has sent more than 6,000 volunteers to make $5 million in physical improvements to more than 100 schools.

Mr. O’Malley also helped bail out the financially troubled district with a $42 million loan last spring. ("City, Not State, to Lend Money To Baltimore Schools," March 17, 2004.)

The facilities arrangement, which will begin this week, designates the city as an independent contractor to “manage the maintenance of the school system facilities and also to provide direct maintenance and custodial services,” according to a summary of the deal.

The city will contribute $3 million to the school system for immediate improvements to dilapidated restrooms and for other emergency repairs.

Accountability Concerns

The agreement addresses concerns by the Maryland board of education and some state lawmakers that such an arrangement would undermine a 1997 state law that gave the district more independence from City Hall after many years of being a city agency.

Edward L. Root, the president of the state board, wrote to district leaders this month inquiring about details of the arrangement, and asking school officials for explanations of which body ultimately would be accountable for performance.

The agreement states that while city agencies will manage the maintenance of school system facilities, “nothing in this collaboration diminishes in any way the authority or responsibility of the board in managing the school facilities.”

The initial contract will run through the end of August, but city officials intend to negotiate another contract to cover all of next school year.

Patricia L. Welch, the chairwoman of the Baltimore school board, said the city has the resources and expertise to make school building repairs.

“The city can help us create systems that can address these concerns,” she said. “They already have working systems that can be implemented in the school district. It’s going to be a good working relationship. The mayor is passionate about the city.”

Meanwhile, a report last month from the Baltimore Planning Commission urged the school system to undertake an immediate, independent audit of all facilities.

District leaders should consider closing “an appropriate number” of schools within the next 18 months, the report said, identifying 21 schools with capacity rates of less than 50 percent.

Enrollment in the Baltimore schools has declined by 43 percent since 1975, the planning commission noted, but the number of school buildings has declined by only 9 percent. Baltimore now has 184 public schools.

Vol. 24, Issue 28, Page 10

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