When a sewer pipe burst, flooding the first floor of the Baltimore Talent Development High School in Harlem Park with brown foul-smelling water, students were told what to do:
Move to the second floor and proceed with class as usual – as if that was possible in their now cramped and chaotic classrooms.
“We doubled from 30 to 60 kids in the classroom,” recalled Brendan McFadden, who taught math at the West Baltimore school that officials ordered shuttered in 2014.
The bizarre disruption was just one of many facility-related issues McFadden has seen in his five years with City Schools. Last winter, he had to move with his students again, this time due to a boiler failure at the city school where he currently works, Cross Country Elementary/Middle.
“My classroom didn’t have heat, so I taught in the auditorium for a day, the cafeteria for a day,” he recalled, noting that these other spaces were only slightly less cold.
Infrastructure problems thanks to decades of under-funding have plagued Baltimore’s public schools for years and recently generated severe crises – such as last winter’s lack of heat and this fall’s absence of air conditioning – that sparked high-profile political confrontations as local and state leaders traded blame.
But will these infrastructure problems generate solutions from the Kirwan Commission, which was set up to overhaul education in Maryland? If the panel doesn’t tackle these problems, some fear its programmatic recommendations could even exacerbate city schools’ capital challenges.
“The failure of the Commission to address capital needs continues to be of serious concern to City Schools,” says CEO Sonja Santelises.
Space for Pre-K
The commission was created in 2016 by the General Assembly to update Maryland’s education funding formula and produce policy recommendations to improve its pre-K-12 education system.
After two years of deliberation and delays, it is expected to release its final report later this year.
If Kirwan’s recommendations are adopted by the General Assembly, they would be the first major revision to Maryland’s school funding formula since the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act passed in 2002, potentially shaping pre-K-12 education in the state for a decade or more.
So far, the task force has been silent on matters relating to infrastructure.
“It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revamp and improve how Maryland funds schools,” according to the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Maryland State Education Association.
But so far, the task force has been silent on matters relating to infrastructure. That worries school officials.
Santelises has taken the commission to task for proposing pre-K expansion without providing additional capital funds to pay for the cost of new pre-K facilities.
In written testimony to the commission, Santelises said existing infrastructure problems are “exacerbated by the expansion of pre-K” under the current plan, which “re-purposes capital funds that are already insufficient to meet current facility needs for the construction of pre-K classrooms.”
That means City Schools would have to divert funding from existing construction and renovation projects to provide facilities for newly enrolled pre-K students.
Kirwan’s Plans Unclear
At this point, it is hard to say how the Kirwan Commission’s final funding formula will address facility expenses or if its final recommendations will include additional revenue sources for new pre-K facilities.
The commission has been tight-lipped about any changes to the current funding formula, which is likely to be the most controversial and expensive of its recommendations. Several attempts were made to reach members of the commission for comment, but they did not respond to emails.
Currently, Baltimore faces a Sisyphean task with backlogged repairs and renovations estimated to cost $3 billion.
That includes failing HVAC systems, leaking roofs, burst pipes, electrical failures, and health hazards like asbestos insulation and lead pipes that make water unsafe for drinking. By comparison, the district’s entire annual operating budget is just $1.3 billion.
Under the ambitious “21st Century Schools” construction initiative approved by the legislature in 2013, some $1.1 billion will be directed towards renovation and new school construction.
But that program unfolds over the next 3 years and students are freezing and roasting in their dilapidated classrooms now. Only 26-28 schools will be rebuilt under the plan, a fraction of the district’s total facilities.
According to the ACLU of Maryland (a strong supporter of 21st Century Schools), the plan still leaves “nearly seventy-five percent of the City’s school buildings, which are mostly in poor condition, dependent on the small amount of capital funding—approximately $50 million annually—provided by the state and city.”
State’s Oldest Buildings
Some have called on the Kirwan Commission to include the cost of facility maintenance in their state education funding formula, saying city schools pose unique problems because of their age.
On average, Baltimore’s public schools are 50 years old, making them the oldest in the state. That’s about as long as most schools are built to last, said Frank Patinella, senior education advocate at the ACLU of Maryland.
“Most of the buildings are at their life cycle or beyond their life cycle,” Patinella said.
In a memo, the ACLU of Maryland urged the commission to include routine facility maintenance and operations in its final formula.
In addition to providing “adequate funding for school facility maintenance and operations for all Maryland school districts,” the memo asked members of the commission to “include a multiplier to account for the additional costs associated with maintaining and operating old and deficient school facilities.”
The ACLU of Maryland urged the commission to include routine facility maintenance and operations in its final formula.
“Those schools that are older should get more money for maintenance,” Patinella said.
The commission may not have the time or resources to address capital funding, “but routine maintenance costs are funded through the operating budget,” Patinella said.
“The Kirwan Commission does have a responsibility,” he argued, “to include those costs in their recommendations.”
While Adults Argue
With the next legislative session – and another winter – looming, the students and staff who spend their days in these dilapidated buildings need Kirwan to offer some hope for change, advocates say.
McFadden sees it in blunt terms:
Until Baltimore’s schools receive the maintenance they need, its children will continue to bear the brunt of the harm.
“The people that are most affected by this are definitely the students,” he said. “And we’re not doing the job we should be doing to really get the best for our children.”