Baltimore schools have had to return millions in state funding for building repairs after projects to fix failing heating systems and roofs grew too expensive or took too long.
Since 2009, city schools have lost out on roughly $66 million in state funding for much-needed repairs after approved projects ran afoul of state regulations meant to prevent waste, state records show. The money could have funded dozens of new heating systems at schools where the heat is now failing.
David Lever, former director of the state’s Public School Construction Program, said his agency raised concerns in late 2015 about the large amount of rescinded funds coming back to the state from Baltimore.
In a report to the General Assembly, he wrote that too often city schools were scrambling to award maintenance construction contracts just before a state deadline or canceling the state-approved projects altogether. Failure to comply with the rules meant the city either had to pay for projects itself, forgo doing them or delay repairs while applying again for state funds.
“The net effect was both delay in improving the schools and an exceptionally high level of reverted funds (as much as $28 million at one point in 2015),” his agency wrote in the December 2015 report.
“Projects were funded because they were legitimate and needed,” Lever said Thursday. “But then either the project would be so delayed it would meet up against a rule that said that funds have to be encumbered within two years, or the school system would discover they hadn’t asked for enough money. This was particularly true of HVAC [heating and air conditioning] projects.”
The lack of maintenance at Baltimore schools is coming under intense scrutiny this week as heating systems have failed in some schools during the current cold spell. The school system says it has received complaints about lack of heat at 60 schools. The Baltimore Teachers Union has urged the city to shut down all schools until officials can get a handle on heating problems that left children shivering. Politicians have sparred on Twitter over who was to blame for the conditions.
The school system announced Thursday night that schools would be closed again Friday to allow for continued repairs to broken pipes and potential water main breaks.
Meanwhile, a 22-year-old Coppin State senior launched a GoFundMe page with the goal of raising $20,000 to bring heaters, coats, hats and gloves into the city’s schools. As of Thursday at 5 p.m., the fundraiser had collected more than $28,000.
Mayor Catherine Pugh called on the school system Thursday to “assess and account for how appropriated maintenance funds are being spent.”
“I am also urging an expedited process to deal with these issues, get these conditions fixed and get our students back to school,” she said in a statement.
Pugh said she was concerned about the high amount of returned funds for school construction and wanted to add someone to the school board who is an expert in fiscal management.
“We shouldn’t be closing schools because the heat doesn’t work,” Pugh said. “If we are getting money from the state we should be using it. We need every penny we can get.”
Last year, city schools returned nearly $30 million in state funding for construction projects, including four projects involving heating systems at schools. They included: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary, Garrett Heights Elementary, Roland Park Elementary/Middle School and William S. Baer School.
In state documents, city officials said the need to return the funds was due to “changing market conditions and challenges with lag time between the developed cost estimates and the final allocation of funds.”
City officials were “continuing to work” on the issue and “are hoping fewer projects will be rescinded in upcoming years,” according to minutes of a June meeting of a state school construction panel.
State officials then approved a motion for the city to submit to them a plan to “improve project management processes” to avoid returning funds.
“Most of the jurisdictions will see some money reverted from time to time, but Baltimore’s was exceptionally high,” Lever said Thursday. “The amount you’re seeing in Baltimore city is really an exception. That was a great concern for us for a number of reasons. When the money is rescinded, that money is not at work. Building occupants are going to be in substandard environments.”
Lever said he believed Baltimore’s problem with returned funds is due to a combination of old buildings and lack of staff dedicated to school maintenance. Most school systems have a building engineer for each school, he said. Baltimore has one building engineer for every eight schools.
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