County Leaders Band Together to Support School Construction Proposal

Maryland's top local officials sit together in favor of a $2.2 billion school construction proposal before the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday. Left to right are: Baltimore City Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young (D), Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (D), Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D), Prince George's County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D), Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner (D), Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. (D), and Harford County Executive Barry Glassman (R). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Showing strength in numbers, seven of Maryland’s county executives and the mayor of Baltimore sat shoulder-to-shoulder in a packed House committee room Thursday to testify in favor of a bill that would clear billions of dollars in backlogged school construction projects throughout the state.

And for good measure, House Bill 1 was introduced to the House Appropriations Committee by Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County).

“Schools in every county in Maryland are in desperate need of renovations,” Jones said. “Districts with the largest populations of black and brown students like Baltimore City and Prince George’s County have the oldest facilities in the state.”

She and other members of the House Appropriations Committee last year passed a similar bill that stalled in the Senate. But Democratic lawmakers have placed as their highest priority passing the bill this year.

The bill would allow the Maryland Stadium Authority to issue up to $2.2 billion in bonds — in addition to the state’s annual capital funding — to pay for school construction projects around the state. A companion measure is cross-filed as Senate Bill 1 and is certain to pass out of that chamber.

And it can’t happen soon enough, the county leaders said.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (D) and Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said their school systems are paying more in operating funds to keep some heating and cooling systems hobbling along than it would cost them, which they would do if more capital funding was available.

The bill would extend through 2022 the Healthy School Facility Fund, which now directs $30 million in funding annually to projects that improve heating, cooling, air quality and water quality.

Montgomery puts about $200 million a year into school construction projects, but still faces a $1.6 billion backlog, Elrich said.

“Despite pouring a lot of money into this problem, we are not able to significantly knock this problem down,” Elrich said. “As long as the growth goes on, as long as our schools get older … we will continue to struggle.”

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. (D) said his county has about $242 million in shovel-ready projects that are just waiting for their state match to proceed.

Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner (D) said that under current funding levels, her county would have to build the equivalent of two new elementary schools a year just to break even with growth ― and at the same time, older schools need modernization.

While all of the county leaders could use more than the bill provides, they are grateful for “how far it moves us along,” Olszewski said.

Baltimore City Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D) said the bond funds would help the city meet promises made when the 21st Century Schools program was passed to completely renovate or rebuild 45 schools in the city. Under the current plan, 28 schools will be completed by 2023.

“The additional money provided by HB1 will allow us keep our promise and ensure that our students have the healthy, modern school facilities that they need and that they deserve,” he said.

About $1.3 billion in capital funding needs remain in city schools.

Despite funding pressures, Young ― who faces more than a dozen challengers in this year’s primary election ―said he is “all in on putting public education first” and his administration is already working to make sure the city can provide matching funds required by the bill to begin projects “as soon as possible.”

Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) supported the bill’s inclusion of funding for a public-private partnership program in the county. That program would allow the county to build 18 schools over the next seven years “to create a renaissance in our county and to help Prince George’s County join in prosperity of this state,” she said.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman (R) brought bipartisan support to the effort and commended lawmakers’ efforts to address concerns from all corners of the state.

“Whether you are in a rural county, an urban county or a suburban county that’s growing, children deserve a decent room ― warm, modern ― to go to school,” Glassman said. “We don’t check ‘em when they get off the bus whether they’ve got a Republican card or a Democratic card, right?”

Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s office also sent in a letter of support for the measure. While he has also introduced a bill authorizing $2.2 billion in Stadium Authority bonds, the governor’s and the legislature’s measures differ in other ways.

Given the similarities of the proposals, Hogan’s Deputy Legislative Officer Mathew Palmer wrote to committee members that the administration is “very supportive of House Speaker Jones’ efforts to move this important issue forward.”

“Education has always been the Administration’s top priority and this legislation represents the largest investment in public school construction in Maryland’s history,” Palmer wrote. “The Administration believes very strongly that every child deserves access to a world-class education regardless of what neighborhood they grow up in, and an important part of ensuring that is to provide students with facilities that are modern, safe, and efficient that encourage growth and learning.

There were, however, some amendments requested to the bill during a 90-minute hearing.

Ardath Cade, the legislative representative for Washington County Public Schools, said officials there are concerned about proposed allocations for the additional funding included in the bill.

The bill specifies that Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Montgomery County would each receive about $420 million, or 21 percent of the bond proceeds. Anne Arundel County would receive 12.5 percent, Howard would get 6.6 percent and Frederick would receive about 5.1 percent. A separate fund is created for Prince George’s County to run the public-private partnership program.

The remaining 11.5 percent of bond proceeds would be shared among Maryland’s 17 other counties. But those counties represent about 25 percent of the state’s school population, Cade said.

“The proposed allocation, we believe, is highly inequitable and should be substantially revised,” she said.

Washington County is also barely squeezed out of a provision to help smaller counties get projects up and running. The bill would change law to allow counties with student populations of fewer than 20,000 to receive state funding for architectural, engineering and consulting costs, which generally must be covered locally. Washington County is about 2,000 students over that limit, so Cade asked that it be raised to 30,000. Raising the threshold to 30,000 would make Washington, Carroll and Charles counties eligible for that funding, she said.

Del. Jefferson L. Ghrist (R-Upper Shore) said the allocations are largely based on the construction schedules of smaller counties, which simply don’t require as many new buildings as larger ones. But he also promised to look into Cade’s concerns and consider them during the committee process.

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) encouraged the committee to vote in favor of the measure, citing his own experience as evidence of public support.

In Anne Arundel Pittman raised the income tax rate from 2.5 percent to 2.81 percent and property taxes from 90.2 cents to 93.5 cents per $100 assessed value last year with the promise that a portion of the increased revenue would go to public infrastructure and public education. A later poll from Anne Arundel Community College showed that 70 percent of those questioned approved of the increases so long as the money is spent as promised.

“It tells me that we’re all on the right track in understanding that our residents really do care about the future, the future does matter, and that people want to invest in our future and our kids,” Pittman said. “…We’re all on the right track in understanding that our residents really do want this.”

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