Students, families, and teachers were outraged by the faltering heating systems at the 80+
Baltimore school buildings during the recent freeze. The finger pointing that followed from
state and local officials added insult to injury. City residents simply expect their government officials to work collaboratively and act quickly to fix the problems. So, what are the problems?

Insufficient funding over many decades is at the core of Baltimore’s school facilities crisis. The math is simple. There’s a standard level of investment needed to adequately maintain and renew building space, but the amount of funding provided to Baltimore schools over recent decades fell drastically short.

Funding for facility maintenance comes from the school system’s operating budget. By the
state’s own measure, Baltimore schools are underfunded by $290 million. Another recent state-hired consultant put that number at $358 million. This deficit has led City Schools to prioritize teaching and support staff in schools and shortchange facilities staff.

In the capital budget, which funds facility renovations and construction, the gap is larger. Most City school buildings are in very poor condition and much of the mechanical systems and structures like roofs are past their useful life. Adjusted for inflation, $3 billion is needed now to fix all deficiencies, based on a 2012 assessment. Of this total, $1 billion is
needed for heating and air conditioning systems.

While the $1 billion 21st Century Schools Program – 2/3 of which is paid for by local sources – is estimated to fully renovate and rebuild up to 28 schools, 100+ buildings are still dependent on the state and city’s capital program, which provides less than $50 million annually. City schools are deteriorating faster than they can be fixed.

Recent reports that City Schools sent back $66 million to the state are false. The $66 million was held in a state account until City Schools received enough money to proceed with projects planned for the year. That $66 million is being spent now on facility upgrades in accordance with state protocol. But it’s far from what’s needed.

So, what are the solutions?

1. Establish an Emergency Fund. Emergencies will continue to occur given the poor condition of City school buildings, especially with extreme weather. The state legislature should pass SB611 – Healthy School Facility Fund – and amend the bill to include $30 million so that City Schools and other school districts can access funding quickly in the event of an emergency.

2. Overhaul the State’s Public School Construction Program. The state should pass HB1783 – 21st Century School Facilities Act – which would make the state’s school construction
program more equitable, efficient and flexible. The bill includes a plan to assess school
buildings statewide; we then must ensure that immediate health and safety deficiencies
are prioritized.

3. Increase State and City Capital Funding. The state should increase school construction
funding to at least $400 million annually, because there are significant needs statewide.
While Baltimore City’s tax base cannot support school construction contributions at the
levels seen in the wealthier surrounding counties, the city can do more than the $19 million
planned for FY19.

4. Expand the 21st Century Schools Program. This program was designed to allow City Schools to move beyond putting band-aids on festering facility problems and instead
comprehensively rebuild schools. More state and city funding – not funding from the city
school system – should be secured for this program.

5. Kirwan Should Include Sufficient Maintenance Funding. The new state education funding
formula, which will be considered by legislature next year, should include more funding for
districts that have higher costs in maintaining old and deficient buildings. City Schools
needs more staff to perform preventative maintenance and manage more capital projects.

Frank Patinella (LinkedIn Photo)

The state has a constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” education, and for schools to “provide by taxation, or otherwise, for their maintenance.” The language is clear. Black and Brown students should not have to rely on charity for winter coats and space heaters to keep them warm in school. Our current elected officials have the opportunity to course-correct on long-standing inequities and ensure that all Baltimore students have access to safe, healthy, and modern school buildings.

Frank Patinella is the senior education advocate for the ACLU of Maryland.