Baltimore residents are worried about unforeseen consequences that could result from one of the largest ongoing projects in the city, the 21st Century School Buildings Plan.
Approved by the Board of School Commissioners in 2013, the planned 10-year project calls for “a massive building modernization initiative … to transform all of the district’s buildings and give its students the 21st-century learning environments they need and deserve.”
Community concerns about the project’s budget and schedule and discrepancies in the city’s plan are rising as a result of how the 21st Century plan affects two local high schools, Forest Park and Northwestern. The two schools are in the process of merging because changing demographics resulting in lower enrollment have led to both campuses being underutilized. A city official spoke about the city’s plans at a community meeting held by the Baltimore Jewish Council on Aug. 18.
For the next two years, Forest Park and Northwestern students will be engaged in separate classes and curriculums within Northwestern’s existing campus while Forest Park is renovated to accommodate more students. Following renovations, Northwestern will close permanently. These renovations will provide a 177,479-square-foot campus with modern amenities and technology. Although Forest Park’s projected enrollment for the 2022-2023 school year is 812 students, the new building is being built for approximately 1,208 to accommodate students who will choose to attend Forest Park once Northwestern has been closed.
For the next two years, Forest Park and Northwestern students will be engaged in separate classes and curriculums within Northwestern’s existing campus while Forest Park is renovated to accommodate more students.
However, members of the community are worried about whether or not the project is on time and on budget. According to Marnell Cooper, a member of Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners since 2002 and chairman since 2015, by 2020 the city is “supposed to complete 28 new buildings and close at least 26 in a city that does not have space to build new buildings.” Additionally, the plan states that the school system must “contribute $3 million a year in addition to money already set aside for maintenance.” Although Cooper assured the community that the project was meeting both time constraints and budgetary demands, the fears of the community are not off base.
According to Forest Park’s website, “the classes of 2019 and 2020 are projected to graduate from our new state-of-the-art 21st Century School building. The transformation begins this year, with renovations projected to be completed by August 2018. On Aug. 1, 2016, our transition commenced with the first stage, moving to our temporary location, at 6900 Park Heights Ave., for two years.”
Even this blurb brings the community’s questions into focus. According to the initial plans for Forest Park located online, construction was slated to begin in June 2015 with the building fully occupied by August 2017. However, the city’s website says that it is currently in the process of designing schematics for the school, which was meant to be accomplished by August 2014, according to the original plans. The renovations will cost $70 million, according to the city schools’ website.
Community members were concerned that if renovations are not completed on schedule, the populations of two local high schools will be left in the lurch after Northwestern closes in 2020.
Sandy Johnson is a member of the Fallstaff community, which is home to an elementary school that will be affected by the 21st Century Plan. While she voiced concerns about time and budget, her main contention was that there must be at least a plan for what to do with the buildings that are slated to be closed, which currently there is not. She said, “I agree with Mr. Cooper that the board can’t do everything at the same time, which I think they have been guilty of trying to do. You have to just decide to do certain things that you believe are actually going to move the needle of kids. The board has not been effective enough in making those decisions. Empty school buildings will not influence kids positively.”
Cooper conceded the point, proposing that the main concern now is that “when we started this program, we did not address it in terms of what money is recouped by closing facilities. If it is recouped, how is that money then spent and funneled back into education? We also need to talk about what is going to be done with the building. This is the real challenge; if we have more than 26 empty school buildings in Baltimore City, what do they become? They become havens for crime. We have to come up with some answers, because we know that in 2020, the buildings are going to be empty.”
Although hypothetical solutions such as turning schools into athletic complexes have been suggested, Cooper firmly believes that getting both local and international businesses involved in converting campuses is the most reasonable solution proposed.
“We have to figure out the entry points for businesses to participate, and it can’t just be the businesses that are billion-dollar industries, because in Baltimore City specifically, there is a large entrepreneurial space of people who want to contribute to the school system but are unclear how to do it,” Cooper said. “We have about 10,000 students in our career technology education program. We need help understanding what the community wants or needs, because their education is not complete unless they can match it with you, the community.
“The school system has plenty of buildings to use,” Cooper continued. “We just don’t own them. The question now is how can the school system get control of a building or buildings to use as an economic engine?”