A sweeping plan to invest $1.1 billion in building and replacing Baltimore's aging public schools won preliminary approval in the House Thursday, after delegates voted overwhelmingly to reject Republican efforts to put additional strings on state funding to be provided the city.
HB860, which was unveiled by legislative leaders only Monday, is expected to come up for a final House vote Friday. Given the lopsided nature of votes Thursday, the bill appears likely to pass easily. The Senate has yet to act.
Three GOP members tried without success to amend the bill, under which the Maryland Stadium Authority would borrow $1.1 billion for construction of 15 new city schools and renovation of dozens more. The bonds would be repaid over 30 years with $20 million a year from state lottery revenues, $20 million from the city, and $20 million from the city school system budget. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said the city's share would come from the general fund and from additional revenue expected from the city's bottle tax and casino table games.
Del. Susan W. Krebs of Carroll County questioned providing state funding for new city schools when there are many empty seats in existing classrooms. She argued that as a condition of state help the city should consolidate and close enough schools to fill the new and renovated buildings, just as counties have to now under state school funding standards.
But Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., chairman of the education subcommittee of the House appropriations committee, urged lawmakers to reject what he called "micromanagement" of the city's school plan. The city's schools are among the oldest in the state, he said, and some of the costliest to maintain. Under the plan, the city intends to close 26 schools and renovate or replace dozens of others.
The St. Mary's County Democrat noted that while suburban and rural counties need new schools to handle growing populations, the city is looking to attract new residents by making its schools more up-to-date and appealing to attend. Krebs' amendment went down 41 to 92.
Del. Pat McDonough of Baltimore and Harford counties praised the city school construction plan as "very creative," but then said he was worried that city residents wouldn't enjoy the economic benefits of the school system overhaul. He proposed requiring that all workers for school projects must prove their legal residence. His amendment falied, 42 to 88.
Finally, Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House GOP leader from St. Mary's and Calvert counties, argued that Maryland taxpayers are effectively shouldering the risk of the overhaul plan through bonds the stadium authority would issue. He proposed a change requiring that legislative budget committees be given a chance to review any changes to the school construction plan.
But Del. Norman H. Conway, House appropriations committee chairman and a Democrat from Wicomico and Worcester counties, countered that there was already "ample" oversight of the plan, and any changes would be subject to review by the state Board of Public Works. O'Donnell's proposed amendment went down 41 to 93.