Edward Ericson Jr., a former staff writer for the Baltimore City Paper, has been a reporter since 1987. He has also written for the Providence Journal-Bulletin, Washington Monthly, SPIN, and Harper's.
The heating crisis that closed the city’s public schools isn’t just about a lack of resources.
As many as 60 of Baltimore public schools—one-third of the city’s total—went without sufficient heat this week. As the entire school system shut down on Thursday and Friday due to plunging temperatures, social media filled with photos and video of children shivering, wearing jackets, and gloves. Dennis Morgan, a senior at Frederick Douglass High School, told NPR he was freezing on Wednesday morning. “As of now, I have on four shirts, two hoodies, and a jacket," he said.
Outrage ensued. City and state lawmakers launched a barrage of finger-pointing over responsibility. A college student started a GoFundMe campaign to purchase space heaters, collecting more than $70,000, so far. Meanwhile, city schools CEO Sonja Santelises took to Facebook on Wednesday with her press spokeswoman to parry calls to shut down the whole system for repairs, and to redirect the public fury away from the current school administration. “We also need to go a level deeper and see all of the levers that are impacting the state of education for black and brown children,” Santelises said. “There is a history of underfunding.”
It’s axiomatic to say that Baltimore does not get enough money to maintain its aging school buildings. It’s true by definition: The city’s schools are falling apart. They’re the state’s oldest, and it really does take more money to keep old boilers running years past their replace-by dates. The price tag for fully upgrading the entire system’s facilities has been estimated at $2.8 billion. But there is another history to consider, one that has kept the city’s predominantly African-American student population shivering (or sweating) in their classrooms for a long time: a well-documented tradition of incompetence and corruption in school facilities management. And that’s a tradition that many urban school systems share.
As the Baltimore Sun reported, Baltimore City schools actually returned more than $65 million in state building maintenance and repair funds over the past eight years, mainly because the funds were not being spent according to the state’s time requirements. Most of the money was for new roofs and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.
The school system’s lack of capacity—the know-how to manage repair and maintenance contracts for a large, complex, and aging school system—is a saga that dates back decades. Between 2004 and 2008, 11 city school maintenance and facilities employees—including the head of facilities management—were criminally convicted in a corruption scheme that had operated since at least 1991. A boiler service contractor was sentenced to 18 months in prison—but served just one.
The heating and air conditioning systems that contractor failed to maintain properly have long been cited as evidence of school underfunding and the need for hundreds of millions in repairs and upgrades. A 2006 state audit of the city school system ran 109 pages and made “23 recommendations covering virtually every financial management area reviewed.” The audit concluded that procurement, facilities, inventory control, transportation services, and payroll/human resources were all substandard, adding that the city school system’s “management must develop a plan and related strategies for addressing these audit issues, including mechanisms to monitor the progress of implementing corrective actions.”
The next year, it was discovered that millions of dollars in boiler repairs, window and door upgrades, and other critical work was paid for, verified, and inspected—but not done. At the time, David Lever, executive director of the state’s public school construction program, said a lack of accountability is “very entrenched” in the culture of Baltimore City’s school system. He praised the school facilities manager for tackling the problem. Four years later, in April of 2011, that manager had not produced a long-term facilities master plan. The school CEO proposed a $1.4 million study to produce that document.
Meanwhile, conditions continued to deteriorate: A state report from FY 2013 noted that “HVAC equipment in a majority of the schools has not been inspected or serviced for multiple years.” The report detailed a litany of issues, from broken fans to active leaks, “which have severely damaged the ceilings and have increased the potential for mold development as well as other environmental issues.” Even newly installed systems were going unmaintained, according to 2016 testimony to the state legislature: “As detailed in several reports, lack of maintenance attention has led to the accelerated deterioration of newly installed systems and components, especially HVAC.”
The pattern of investment in school infrastructure has also been strikingly uneven: While some schools operated with holes in their roofs, one got a hugely expensive tile one—except the installation was botched, wasting millions.
The argument over whether Baltimore’s schools are fairly funded or not has largely broken on familiar ideological grounds: Maryland’s GOP governor blamed Democratic city officials for “ineptness and mismanagement,” while the chair of the school board defended the district by citing “the long-term underfunding of Baltimore’s schools, which by the state’s own estimates amounts to a shortfall of more than $290 million a year.” The dollars involved are indeed considerable: Since 1972, Baltimore City has received more than $856 million in state school construction money—about 11 percent of the state total and more than any other jurisdiction except Montgomery County, which has a larger population. The state pays 93 percent of Baltimore’s school construction costs—a higher percentage than all but two state jurisdictions. Somerset and Wicomico Counties—both smaller counties on Maryland’s Eastern Shore—receive 100 and 97 percent, respectively. The figure in Baltimore County, the more affluent suburban area that surrounds the city, is 53 percent.
Layered on top of (or alongside) this state funding system for operations and maintenance expenses is the 21st Century Program, an ambitious and creatively financed billion-dollar school construction program that rests on the idea that enrollment in the city’s schools, which has been falling in lockstep with the population since the 1970s, will increase in coming years. Managed by the Maryland Stadium Authority, a quasi-public state agency, the program has so far opened one new elementary school and is renovating several others, with an eye towards modernizing and improving energy efficiency. But the role and responsibilities of the program have also managed to further confuse the lines of authority and responsibility for the ongoing facilities maintenance debacle.
Baltimore is hardly alone in this tradition. Houston schools, in the midst of a similar all-out building program, came up more than $200 million short of budget last year, an audit from the outside firm KPMG found—not because of fraud but because of increasing construction costs and a lack of capacity to manage construction.
Lack of construction and contract management expertise often goes hand-in-hand with facilities fraud, according to Don Mullinax, former inspector general for the Los Angeles Unified School District. As he told a school administration industry magazine in 2009. school leaders are usually trained as educators and managers—not building maintenance engineers or auditors: “They are hired to be educators, and they don’t have a background in financial management or accounting or auditing, so they don’t focus on fraud. They wouldn’t see it if it walks up and hits them in the face.”
Facilities contract fraud is fairly common in urban school systems, though not often in the news. As a reporter in Hartford, Connecticut, in the early 1990s, I tracked air conditioners and hot water heaters from public works and school system warehouses into the homes of local politicians, where city workers helpfully installed them while on city time. My next-door neighbors, both school teachers, somehow ended up with two taxpayer-purchased snow blowers. They were stored in the garage I shared with them.
At that time, the big national scandal was New York City’s system, where school custodians worked as union-backed “quasi-independent contractors,” collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars, often for veritable no-show jobs. Reforms have not fully eradicated that culture, even a quarter century later.
Historically speaking, a little patronage and graft has arguably helped grease the wheels of municipal bureaucracy, keeping cities running relatively smoothly, if not at absolute peak efficiency. The trouble comes when the bureaucratic system—the complex interlocking gears of knowledgeable people and workable policies and procedures—breaks down, leaving only the grease. And that problem is exacerbated by modern political expectations, in which corruption-free government is supposed to marry frictionless technology-driven solutions to every conceivable management puzzle.
That’s a laudable, if elusive goal. For one, it requires knowledge and and incorruptible professionals—the people we’re supposed to be training right now, in these freezing classrooms and flooded computer labs.
And technology may be making the challenge of maintaining school facilities harder. Maryland’s Interagency Committee on School Construction, which audits, oversees, and helps guide both the regular state school funding and Baltimore’s 21st Century Program, has pointed out that school infrastructure may only get more complex—and more expensive to fix—in coming years. In its 2016 report to the state legislature, the committee noted that the new schools being built in Baltimore “will have sophisticated mechanical systems in order to meet the requirement for LEED certification. These systems require both well-trained mechanics and continuous attention if they are to operate trouble-free; both are lacking in Baltimore City Public Schools.”
To keep these future schools operating, the committee says, the school system will have to spend more money in order to attract qualified personnel.