Dude, where's my schools? City's plan to modernize school buildings falls short of original estimates

Council President looking for 20 missing schools. Their loss is "no one's fault."

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young wants to know where 20 new schools went. "I know we started out with 50 schools," he said. "Now we find there is going to be less schools we're able to renovate. I am saddened to hear it, and I want to know why this is taking place."

He was talking to School Superintendent Gregory Thornton, Dr. David Lever, executive director of the InterAgency Committee on School Construction, and Michael Frenz, the executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, at a hearing of the council's Education and Youth Committee. How a celebrated $1.1 billion plan to build or renovate 45 schools suddenly became a $970 million plan to build or renovate as few as 23 schools has been the subject of some controversy. But most of the concern has focused on the closures of particular schools (see here and here). So far at least, the staggering inaccuracy of the original estimates—estimates upon which Baltimore's leaders staked their reputations and the city's fiscal policies—has gotten less attention than one might expect. 

To recap: A coalition of educators, parents, and advocates of building trades and complex finance worked for years to convince the state legislature to earmark $32 million per year of the money it sends to Baltimore's school system each year for a public-private bond program, taken out by the Stadium Authority, that would borrow more than $1 billion. The money was supposed to "TransForm Baltimore" by rebuilding its schools, and the promise was to bring between 38 and 45 up to snuff.

Former schools CEO Andres Alonso focused on getting community buy-in for the project, and created a detailed plan and projection for school utilization, mapping it down to the neighborhood level. This was needed in order to get neighborhood parents' approval for closing some schools—a necessary prerequisite for the modernization plan.

The early plans looked precise. But they were not, Lever told the City Council last night.

"The initial number was related to the Jacobs Report," Lever said. The Jacobs Report estimated that the school system needed to spend more than $2.4 billion to make all of its buildings "adequate." But the new plan goes beyond "adequate"; it aims for "twenty-first-century" standards with "bells and whistles," Lever said. Then the bond details came back, and it turned out that the city could only borrow about $970 million, not the $1.1 billion as originally projected. "So you already have a loss of over $100 million," Lever explained. "Then we did a study of building costs."

The projected costs are spectacular: $309 per square foot, according to a PowerPoint slide that Lever referred to. The range in other jurisdictions is wide: from $352 in Washington, D.C. to a low of $259 in Baltimore County. No one explained why the county could build schools for 19 percent less than the city. (The local figures are roughly double what Texas pays, according to this report from that state's comptroller.)

Councilmembers also did not explore how and why nearly everyone involved in the plan misunderstood such a fundamental aspect as the standard to which the renovations would be built. Instead they asked for assurances that the project's managers will make jobs available to their constituents, and then voted to send the resolution, which asks the InterAgency Committee on School Construction to give the council annual progress reports, to the full council.

"We have to find a way to do what we said we were going to do," Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (14th District), said at the hearing's close. "It's nobody’s fault that we fell so short."

Click here for more from Edward Ericson Jr. or email Edward at eericson@citypaper.com

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