With Education Lockbox Funding on the Way, Hogan Adds School Construction Promise to Mix

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. with State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon (left) and Prince George's County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks at Highland Park Elementary School in Landover Tuesday. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) wants lawmakers to commit a portion of casino revenue to school construction spending over the next five years.

Hogan said Tuesday he will introduce a bill during the 2019 General Assembly session to set aside a portion of the education lockbox funding approved by voters in November to create the Building Opportunity Fund, which would provide $1.6 billion in new school construction funding over the next five years.

The lockbox – passed initially by Democratic legislation and signed by the governor before receiving overwhelming approval from voters – sets aside all revenues from Maryland’s casinos as supplemental education funding and is expected to infuse an additional $4.4 billion in state spending over the next five years. Hogan’s plan would set aside about 45 percent of the increased revenues for construction funding.

And there’s a massive backlog in state public school construction needs.

There are more than $4 billion in requested school construction projects across the state in a five-year pipeline. Setting aside an additional $1.9 billion in addition to the $1.6 billion currently in the state’s five-year Capital Improvement Program would cover almost all of the current requests.

But those requests don’t reflect a complete picture of school construction and maintenance needs; in seeking state funds, school systems must be ready to commit their own funding, limiting the “backlog” to those projects that counties are ready to support. The Interagency Commission on School Construction is working on a report to comprehensively detail school construction and maintenance needs in the state, officials said Tuesday.

Anticipated funds are in high demand in Annapolis even before the first year of a five-year phase-in of casino revenues. The Commission for Innovation and Excellence in Education, better known as the Kirwan Commission, is working on final recommendations to increase teacher salaries, implement universal pre-kindergarten, expand career and technical education programs, and provide more resources to at-risk students, all at a price tag of $4.4 billion annually in 2030. The costs are recommended to be phased in over a 10-year period.

It will be up to the General Assembly to decide what to fund and in what order, Hogan said Tuesday.

“We haven’t even seen the final recommendations of the Kirwan Commission. We know that they’re talking about a lot of money but we haven’t seen yet where they’re hoping to get it from,” Hogan said.

The Building Opportunities Fund would be modeled after the 21st Century School Buildings Program currently under way in Baltimore City, Hogan said. Five newly renovated school campuses opened in August through the program. To date, nine schools have been improved with 28 more in the planning or construction stages.

“I believe very strongly that every single child in Maryland deserves access to a world-class education regardless of what neighborhood they happen to grow up in, and an important part of that is making sure that all of our students are educated in facilities that are modern, safe, and efficient which provide them with an environment that encourages growth and learning,” Hogan said.

Hogan announced the proposed bill at Highland Park Elementary School in Landover, where he was joined by Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), Maryland Department of Budget Secretary David R. Brinkley, State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon, Maryland Stadium Authority Executive Director Michael Frenz and Highland Park Elementary School Principal Wanda Robinson.

“We are appreciative of that funding and looking forward to addressing the backlog of projects we have in Prince George’s County,” Alsobrooks said. The county’s need for school construction and maintenance funding is about $4 billion, she said, noting that the proposed program would help the county catch up on a current backlog of work.

Steven Hershkowitz, spokesman for the Maryland State Education Association and not a stranger to critiquing Hogan, said Tuesday that he had to give “credit where credit is due” and said the governor had unveiled the first serious statewide school construction proposal in recent history. However, Hershkowitz said he worried that the proposal could pit some educational priorities against others.

The school construction funding should be implemented in addition to and not instead of Kirwan recommendations for additional funding for teacher salaries, expanded pre-kindergarten and other programs, he argued.

“We’re excited for the governor, legislators and advocates of public education to continue the conversation,” Hershkowitz said.

His comments were echoed on social media by Sen. William C. Ferguson IV (D-Baltimore City), incoming vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

Ferguson said his “one concern” about the proposal was that it would create an “either-or” choice for lawmakers: consider Kirwan recommendations and possible changes to the state’s education funding formulas, or implement the school construction proposal.

“Great buildings are essential, but they are not sufficient. What happens inside a building is as important ― if not more important ― than the quality of the building itself,” Ferguson wrote on Facebook. “We must be able to tackle our infrastructure problems while also creating a more equitable and more excellent system of free public schools.”

Ferguson said he would work with governor and legislators to “ensure that we do in fact do both.”

Hogan’s proposed funding program would be handled by the Maryland Stadium Authority, which manages the Baltimore program. The news conference dealt in generalities, promising a bill that would also include accountability measures. Hogan said a future news conference is planned to go into more detail about his school accountability plans, which build upon legislation to create a statewide accountability office that wasn’t passed by lawmakers this year.

“Just investing record amounts of money doesn’t necessarily solve all the problems we have in education,” Hogan said.

Lining the front row in the audience were representatives from the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA), a trade union that endorsed Hogan in the 2018 gubernatorial election even though it usually aligns with Democrats. Hogan said the proposed legislation would create an estimated 27,000 new construction jobs during the five-year period.

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