As students returned to Maryland public schools last week, Baltimore County once again became Ground Zero in the never-ending political fight over inadequate classroom facilities in the state, with 10 schools closed due to the extreme heat.
While the political battle has largely involved Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) taking on elected officials and school bureaucrats in Baltimore County – and more recently, in Franchot’s case, legislative leaders – the candidates for county executive inevitably got involved in the discussion last week.
Separately, they also took the time to briefly discuss the state of their race with Maryland Matters. Within a couple of hours and a couple of miles on a miserably hot afternoon last week, the Republican nominee, State Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr., toured the aging Towson High School, while the Democrat, former Del. John A. “Johnny O” Olszewski Jr., picked up the endorsement of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County (TABCO).
Redmer, along with Del. Christopher R. West (R-Baltimore County) and Baltimore County Councilman David Marks (R), got a soup-to-nuts tour of Towson High from Principal Charlene DiMino, other school officials, and parent leaders.
“The reality is, this is an old facility,” DiMino told the group.
The school was built in 1949 and was designed to hold 1,200 students. It was renovated in 1997, but school officials maintain that there wasn’t enough money to do the job properly. Most classrooms, for example, were built with one door when they were supposed to have two.
Today, the school has 1,629 students and uses 10 trailers for classrooms. The school population is projected to grow to 2,000 in five years.
But beyond overcrowding is the condition of the facility itself.
In the cafeteria, Redmer, a Perry Hall High School graduate, observed, “This looks remarkably like the one I sat in in 1974.”
More ominously, school officials said 20 to 30 ceiling tiles have to be replaced every day due to leaking from above. And in the school basement, Redmer saw leaking pipes over critical electrical equipment that powers the facility.
“Certainly the needs are significant,” Redmer told Maryland Matters after the tour. “The question is how you build a new school when there’s currently an existing school.”
The county has set aside about $30 million to plan for new high schools in Baltimore County. But new school facilities cost about $120 million.
Redmer has toured several schools around the county, including three high schools, and seen the needs.
Paying for everything, Redmer conceded, will be challenging. But he argued that the county needs to do a better job of launching school construction projects to ensure that a steady stream of upgrades are in the pipeline.
“We don’t know yet” how to pay for everything,” he said. “I think we’re going to have to do multiple things at one time, and we’re going to have to start these projects, that’s for sure.”
Moments later, in another part of Towson, Olszewski was in front of TABCO’s new headquarters to pick up the teachers’ union endorsement – something that had eluded him, following great controversy, during the Democratic primary.
“In this race, the choice couldn’t be clearer,” said Abby Beytin, the union president.
Beytin said that when Redmer served in the House of Delegates, he voted against budgets that were beneficial to the public schools – including opposing the so-called Thornton formulas from the early 2000’s that served as the basis for school funding in the state for a decade and a half.
Beytin said that with the new Kirwan recommendations for school funding due to be issued soon, teachers believe Olszewski is best-equipped to make sure that Baltimore County is prepared to robustly fund its schools.
Olszewski, a former teacher, has committed to spending $2 billion on school infrastructure, and has also vowed to focus on teacher recruiting, training and salary increases.
“Teachers are the backbone of our schools,” he said.
Olszewski said that as the parent of a young daughter who will soon be attending Baltimore County schools, he’ll judge the performance of each school by whether he’d be comfortable sending his daughter to it, if elected.
“The parent test will be the test by which I judge our schools,” he said, adding in an interview that one of his goals as county executive is to make sure that no school closes for renovations during his time in office.
Both candidates expressed optimism about their prospects in the fall. Baltimore County has 309,589 registered Democrats compared to 143,111 registered Republicans, and the GOP has won only two elections for county executive dating back to the 1950s.
But a percentage of the Democrats vote like Republicans – and Redmer will be buttressed by what is expected to be a strong showing, in just about every corner of the county, by Hogan in the gubernatorial election. Most Redmer campaign signs note that he has been endorsed by Hogan – and his website has several graphic elements in common with Hogan’s.
Frequently, when Hogan’s challenger Benjamin T. Jealous (D) says or does something that Hogan attacks, Redmer calls on Olszewski to denounce it.
Closer to home, Redmer said his campaign has “consolidated the support” of Republicans who voted for his erstwhile opponent, Del. Patrick McDonough, in the GOP primary, and is also working to attract supporters of Olszewski’s vanquished Democratic primary opponents, County Councilwoman Vicki L. Almond and state Sen. James Brochin.
“There’s a lot of energy again,” Redmer said. “There’s a buzz. There’s an enthusiasm. And I will go anywhere in the county to compete for votes.”
Olszewski, who represented a district based in Dundalk, said he believes he is consolidating Democratic support, attracting new voters, and connecting with Democrats who have abandoned the party in the recent past. “We have expanded the map, having the base in Southeast Baltimore County,” he said.
Olszewski acknowledged Hogan’s popularity, but said he isn’t convinced it will extend to other Republican candidates and believes there is plenty of Democratic energy that will act as a counter-balance.
“The governor’s become a brand unto himself, which is helping him,” Olszewski said. “But there is a lot of Democratic enthusiasm out them. Even in places where there are Hogan Democrats, they’ll be Olszewski voters.”