ANNAPOLIS – He was barely tall enough to see over the podium, but Harford County fifth grader Matthew Kosmer was still confident enough Wednesday to extol the virtues of his new school for the Maryland Board of Public Works.
“We have drinking facilities without too many nitrates, bathrooms that don’t overflow with smelly water and classrooms that have less students,” said Matthew, 10, of the new Forest Lakes Elementary School that replaced his “old, rusty school.”
Matthew and a classmate, Barry Wright, 9, were live props for a Harford County delegation asking the board for $8.725 million for new schools and school repairs. The Interagency Committee on School Construction, which reviews such requests, has recommended that Harford get $6 million next year.
The request for funding is an annual ritual in Annapolis and officials from 20 of the state’s 24 jurisdictions were on hand yesterday to plead their cases.
This year’s pleas have a better chance than most. Because of a state budget surplus, Gov. Parris Glendening has told lawmakers he wants to spend $222 million on school construction. It is the most money in two decades and state officials said they expect to fulfill the highest percentage of school requests in 25 years with that money.
One of the counties hoping to cash in was Baltimore County, which had originally requested $31.5 million but was slated to receive $9.2 million. It brought a delegation, led by County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, that asked the board for another $18.4 million.
“We’ve made school construction our first priority,” Ruppersberger said, backed by a bipartisan team of the county’s legislators and school board members. He pointed to the fact that the county raised $88 million of its own funds for school construction last year.
Harford County Superintendent Jeffery Grotsky said his school system spends the state’s school construction money efficiently. Speaking on behalf of the county’s 38,527 students, he appealed for funding of six projects, saying that the only problem Harford schools face is growth.
He said the county needs a new Forest Hill Elementary, additions for Church Creek and Abingdon Elementaries, pre- kindergarten classrooms at North Bend Elementary, heating and air conditioning replacement at Bel Air Elementary and technology wiring at Magnolia Middle School.
Glendening pointedly reminded lawmakers from several delegations — mostly the Republicans — that school funding is a two-way street.
He told Del. Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford, that she could not “go downstairs to the floor” of the House and vote down his budget and still expect to see $222 million go to school construction.
She said later that lawmakers need to trim about $22 million from Glendening’s proposed budget to bring it within self-imposed spending guidelines, but that she is all for as much money as possible going to schools.
“There’s so many needed places to put the money, but there’s only so much to go around,” Jacobs said.
Sen. Vernon Boozer, R-Baltimore County, said he thinks there is more than enough in the surplus for both the $222 million in school construction and an accelerated tax cut for Marylanders.
Sens. Norman Stone and Michael Collins, both Baltimore County Democrats, said they’re optimistic that the board will honor the county’s request.
“Assuming the legislature does not cut the $222 million, I’m confident the Board of Public Works will approve our appeal,” Collins said.
But to Barry, the 9-year-old from Forest Lakes, party politics were not as important as what new schools really mean to kids.
“Mr. Webster, my art teacher, who used to roll around a small art cart is beside himself with all his art supplies now,” Barry said. “I’ve always had the best teachers, and now I have the best school.”