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by Mark Reutter7:32 pmFeb 3, 20210

City sells school building to politically linked Empowerment Academy for $1

The City Charter allows the mayor and Board of Estimates to sell surplus property to private parties at whatever price they choose. Here’s how that policy is playing out.

Above: The Empowerment Academy is housed in the former Lafayette Elementary School in Evergreen Lawn/Rosemont. (@baltcityschools)

Mayor Brandon Scott and the Board of Estimates today sold a former West Baltimore elementary school, appraised at $780,000, to a church-affiliated charter school for $1.

The 92,000-square-foot building is the home of the Empowerment Academy founded by Rev. Jamal H. Bryant, the former charismatic pastor of the Empowerment Temple AME Church, who had promised to elevate education in a low-income neighborhood.

Bryant left Baltimore in 2018 to become head of an Atlanta megachurch, but he remains resident agent of the church-formed company deeded the school, according to state tax records.

The contract sale was approved without discussion or comment by the five-member board. The City Charter allows the BOE to sell surplus buildings to a private party without competitive bidding or consideration of a fair market price.

Sitting on 3.3 acres of land, the former Lafayette Elementary School is assessed at $4.3 million and appraised at $780,000. The Department of General Services said the $1 sale will allow the Empowerment Center to continue operating Pre-K to 8th-grade classes at the school, which had about 250 enrolled students before the Covid-19 pandemic halted in-person learning last March.

The school’s governing board is stocked with political and educational figures, including state Senator Antonio L. Hayes (vice president), City Councilman John Bullock (chair of academic and strategic planning), and Morgan State University executive Cecil Payton (chair).

Former City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt chairs its budget committee, and her private CPA firm has handled tax preparation for the school and church.

either side of Pastor Jamal Bryant at yesterday's march. (Louie Krauss)

Future Mayor Catherine Pugh and former Mayor Sheila Dixon march alongside Rev. Bryant in a 2016 event marking a year after the death of Freddie Gray. (Louis Krauss).

Asked if today’s sale was a good deal for taxpayers, Bullock said “that’s a fair question” best answered by considering the costs the school has had to absorb.

“You have an operator that’s been there for a long time who’s had to make significant and expensive upgrades that the school system hasn’t paid for. And you have a building that otherwise would stand vacant. This was part of the reasoning for what you [saw] happening today,” Bullock said, referring to the price.

The Empowerment Academy, located along the 800 block of Braddish Avenue, has been ranked three out of five stars by the Maryland Department of Education. (@BaltCitySchools)

Located on Braddish Avenue, the Empowerment Academy has been ranked with three out of five stars by the Maryland Department of Education. (@BaltCitySchools)

Other Private Sales

The transaction marks the third “dollar sale” of public property to a private entity with political clout.

In November, the spending board sold the former Langston Hughes Elementary School to an obscure nonprofit (Youth Educational Services or Y.E.S.) tied to the late George Mitchell.

The transaction marks the third “dollar sale” of public property to a private entity with ties to political luminaries.

Dubbed the “Mayor of Park Heights” for his work in the community, Mitchell cultivated top city Democrats as well as state Republicans like Gov. Larry Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford. In 2017, he was granted a ROE (right of entry) to the school by former mayor Catherine Pugh.

In return, Mitchell opened a room in the building to honor Pugh. Before her corruption conviction, the room included copies of her “Healthy Holly” children’s books and other memorabilia.

An investigation by Baltimore Inspector General Isabel Mercedes Cumming found that Mitchell had failed to abide by the terms of the ROE “by subleasing space for profit.”

Catherine Pugh's Healthy Holly books, at the Langston Hughes Community Resource and Business Center. (Fern Shen)

Catherine Pugh’s children’s books on display at the former Langston Hughes School. (Fern Shen)

Although General Services said the building and its 2.4 acre lot were worth about $1.4 million, 6th District Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton pushed through an ordinance authorizing the sale without any reference to price.

The final contract, signed after Mitchell’s death, revealed that price to be $1.

Parking for Bethel Church

Another controversial dollar sale – actually the sale of 15 lots to Bethel AME Church for $1 each – was also the subject of an investigation by IG Cumming completed last February.

Comptroller Pratt was criticized by Cumming for approving the sale while serving on Bethel’s board of trustees. Pratt called her vote on the Board of Estimates “the result of an oversight and not intentional,” and she did not face any disciplinary action.

The baseline price for a vacant lot is $1,000, but Bethel was awarded the 15 city-owned lots, located in an alley behind the church, for $1 each. The lots were used by the church for parking on Sundays.

Over the years, Bethel officials said the congregation had incurred $35,000 in costs maintaining the lots and clearing up trash. Before that, the housing department had spent more than $300,000 acquiring and demolishing the houses that once stood on the lots.

A charter amendment by Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, banning the private sale of surplus property and requiring the city to issue RFPs (request for proposals) and to undergo a formal bidding process, died last year.

Today Schleifer told The Brew that he is planning to reintroduce the measure. “You just can’t be giving away major assets without making sure that it’s in the best interests for the stakeholders of Baltimore,” he asserted.

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