BALTIMORE — Ten years ago, the Montebello Elementary/Middle School in Northeast Baltimore was a drab, dingy, and virtually windowless campus, typical of the aging school buildings across the city.
But in January, after a two-year renovation, the school reopened with bright, wide hallways. A modern cafeteria building replaced the dim basement where students used to eat. In the spring, pre-K children learning in a new outdoor amphitheater marveled as butterflies fluttered in their tiny hands. The once bricked-over windows of the school now offer panoramic views of Lake Montebello, a reservoir where families picnic, walk, and bike.
Montebello’s transformation demonstrates what can be done when state lawmakers are goaded into action. Appalled by the decrepit conditions of the city’s school buildings, the ACLU, other community activists, and Baltimore officials successfully lobbied the Legislature in 2013 to create a school construction program specifically for Baltimore, so that the city would no longer have to compete with better-funded districts for sought-after funds. The program has allowed one of the nation’s poorest cities to extensively renovate or replace 29 school buildings — a fifth of its inventory — in less than a decade.
But it also involved a tough tradeoff — a commitment to close 26 schools with declining enrollment or particularly poor conditions, a painful process that led to regret and broken relationships between the district and some of its families and teachers.
The ambitious effort is unlike anything seen in Massachusetts, where there is a dire need for new school buildings in Boston and other urban districts, but where suburban districts have benefited most from the state’s school construction program. While multiple bills have been filed on Beacon Hill to address disparities in school construction funding, legislative leaders don’t appear to be coalescing around any of them, relegating some of the state’s most vulnerable students — disproportionately Black and brown — to buildings with leaky roofs, mold and rodent infestation, and cramped classrooms, making it difficult for them to learn.
“It is unconscionable,” said Mary Tamer, a former Boston School Committee member and Massachusetts director at Democrats for Education Reform. “This is a solvable problem, but it comes down to political will and whether we choose to put children first.”
The Baltimore initiative, called the 21st Century School Buildings Program, is a hard-won and unique partnership between the state, city, and its school system. Overseen by the Maryland Stadium Authority, an entity created by the state in the ‘80s to build sports facilities, the partnership provided the school system $1.1 billion over 10 years to build schools. The district, city, and state each kicked in $20 million a year to back borrowing by the stadium authority.
In Boston, the majority of the city’s schools were built before 1950, and are often characterized by the same problems as in Baltimore — deteriorating facilities, out-of-date electrical systems, and aging equipment like boilers and lighting.
”We spend a billion plus dollars [each year], and our children are in schools that should have been condemned years ago,” Jeri Robinson, chair of the Boston School Committee, said at a recent meeting. “We’re not going to be able to snap our fingers and have 120 fixed schools, so somehow, all of our heads need to get focused on the reality of what we have.”
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu launched a more than $2 billion school construction program last year, but city and school leaders acknowledge it will take much more than that to create a healthy learning environment for all the city’s students. It also remains unclear where that money will come from. City and school leaders also will have to navigate tough political waters to convince parents, students, and teachers that a number of small schools will have to close or consolidate in order to get the job done.
Oren Sellstrom, litigation director at Lawyers for Civil Rights, which offers free legal support to immigrants and communities of color to fight discrimination, said any replication of the Baltimore program would need to encompass both Boston and the state’s other urban districts, which have fewer financial resources than Boston or its wealthy suburbs.
“Targeting the districts that have not received their fair share of construction funds in the past would be the most equitable move for the Legislature to make,” he said. “It is ultimately the state’s responsibility to create an environment where all students can learn and the state is failing on that count” by allowing students of color to attend classes in deteriorating school buildings.
Prior to the 21st Century School Buildings Program, Baltimore similarly struggled to secure enough school construction aid, encountering obstacles like those confronting Boston and other Massachusetts urban districts: Maryland’s school construction funding program favored more affluent districts by not taking into account need and districts’ abilities to spend their own money, according to a 2010 report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
At the time, Baltimore school officials estimated that 100 schools required extensive renovations or replacements at a cost of approximately $2.8 billion.
The ACLU viewed the decrepit buildings as a major civil rights violation in a district where three-quarters of the approximately 75,000 students are Black. An ACLU report prescribed a series of recommendations that eventually formed the basis for the new buildings program.
But getting there was a huge undertaking. The ACLU assembled a community coalition that met with thousands of families, attended scores of public events, and lobbied dozens of local and state officials, said ACLU education advocate Frank Patinella, who spearheaded the fight. Students and families sent Baltimore’s then-mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake thousands of postcards demanding action.
When skeptical lawmakers questioned the concept’s feasibility and the cost to the rest of the state, Baltimore leaders passed a 3-cent increase to the city’s bottle tax, over opposition from corporate giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi, to fund the city’s share. Community groups like the YMCA bused thousands for a rally in the Maryland Capitol.
Lawmakers from around the state were brought in to see the city’s schools, said Bill Ferguson, who was then a junior state senator for Baltimore and is now the state Senate president. The Maryland Stadium Authority was tapped to quiet concerns about the district’s capacity to handle such large-scale projects.
New and renovated buildings now dot various parts of Baltimore. Forest Park High School hosts state-of-the-art vocational programs, including a culinary program in an industrial kitchen and a program in which students can design and build robots. The first newly constructed school, Fort Worthington Elementary/Middle School, features modern science labs, a video room, and classrooms built around central spaces allowing for small group instruction or combined classes.
At about $40 million per building, the program has been very efficient — in recent years, new elementary schools built with state assistance in Massachusetts have cost over $70 million, on average. Maryland leaders were so pleased with the results that in 2021, they passed a successor bill — the Built to Learn Act — this time having the stadium authority finance and manage construction for districts across the state. Baltimore will get 21 percent of the up to $2.2 billion in funding over 10 years.
But at the local level, the mandated closures made the 21st Century School Buildings program far less popular.
Diamonté Brown, head of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said families shouldn’t have to accept school closures in order to get state funds.
“Current buildings should be repaired and maintained so it doesn’t get to a point where it has to be destroyed completely,” she said.
But Baltimore school officials say the district simply could not afford to maintain so many old, quarter-empty buildings, making school closures as well as new construction a critical task. Students faced poor air quality and missed school when it was too hot or too cold to learn.
Ariel Bierbaum, an urban planning professor at the University of Maryland who has studied the program, emphasized many of the projects were in the district’s neediest neighborhoods — so they experienced both closures and major investments.
“These are communities that have not seen investment like that in generations, if ever,” Bierbaum said.
But she added, “The district understated, or under-understood, the depth of harm and the depth of mistrust that the closures precipitated.”
Baltimore and the state of Maryland are among a small group of urban districts and states that have launched broad-scale school construction programs serving the neediest students. Ohio has a state construction program that prioritizes low-wealth districts. New Haven recently revamped all its schools with a generous state reimbursement program; Washington, D.C., overhauled most of its schools, funded in part with commercial real estate taxes.
Other urban districts across the country have faced immovable obstacles to rebuilding — shaky economic conditions, declining enrollment, and often a lack of public support, said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that is not affiliated with the Baltimore program.
“There is a downward spiral we are seeing in urban communities and distressed rural communities: There is political pressure to close schools and less desire by states to put [school construction] money into districts that are closing schools,” she said.
In Massachusetts, state school construction money largely goes to communities on a school-by-school basis, without regard to overall need. A recent review by The Boston Globe found that since the Massachusetts School Building Authority began accepting funding applications in 2007, it has spent billions more on majority-white districts than on districts serving mostly students of color, such as Boston, Lawrence, and New Bedford. Those same districts also have older schools and worse conditions.
The MSBA’s grant program approves proposals based on the state of individual buildings, without taking into account districts’ overall facilities conditions or their ability to pay for renovations. However, if a project is accepted from a low-income district, the state will reimburse more of the eligible costs, up to 80 percent.
Boston has received MSBA funding for only four large-scale projects, two of which have been completed.
Funding is not the only challenge confronting Boston. Winning public support will also likely be one of the biggest obstacles for the Wu administration to achieve a school construction program the size of Baltimore’s and undergo school closures at the same time. Boston’s school enrollment has declined by more than 8,000 students over the past decade. Prior BPS leaders and mayors have a long history of making false promises to fix buildings, ill-conceived proposals that quickly fall apart, and not being upfront about the possibility of school closures.
That pattern ultimately impeded former mayor Martin J. Walsh’s efforts to roll out his $1 billion BuildBPS construction program. In one of the biggest blunders, his administration in 2015 initially concealed from the public portions of a consulting report that noted the city could save tens of millions of dollars by closing up to 50 of the city’s 125 schools. That information only came to light after a parents group filed a public records request.
The omissions continue to have ripple effects, with the Boston Education Justice Alliance chiding Wu’s school construction program as “the latest version of closing schools under the promise of building new ones.”
The opposition to school closures remains, even as many families recognize the tremendous need for modernizing the city’s schools, education advocates say. To turn the opposition around, Wu must engage the community far more than she has to date, they say.
It won’t be easy because many families fear if they advocate for improvements for their children’s school, BPS will close it, said Megan Wolf, a member of Quality Education for Every Student, the parent group that unearthed the school-closing recommendations.
“In general if you are happy with your school, you can ignore warts,” she said. “It’s a lower expectation … the bathrooms are gross but the instruction is good.”
Other cities around the state also are beginning to fight for more school building aid; the mayor of Lynn has organized leaders of Gateway Cities to lobby state leaders.
Massachusetts lawmakers are considering several bills to address inequities in school construction, and have provided the Massachusetts School Building Authority with some additional funding in recent years. But the amount of money the MSBA has available is not nearly enough, up to $1.2 billion for this fiscal year. That could cover roughly a dozen projects, in a state where many of the 1,800 school buildings need extensive repairs or replacement. The agency would have to triple the pace of its projects to rebuild every school in the state every 50 years — the targeted life span of a school.
“Failure is not an option,” said state Senator Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat, who has filed a bill that would devote more money to districts with an outsize number of buildings requiring major renovations or replacement. “Our students and teachers need these classrooms for learning.”