ANNAPOLIS – In what one county official dubbed “the first begging session” of Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s administration, legislators, local leaders and school officials from across Maryland packed the State House Wednesday with a combined plea for $234 million in school construction money.
At stake for 2004, however, is a scant $18.5 million, to be spilt among counties grappling with growing enrollments, deteriorating buildings and inadequate learning spaces.
Though the state Interagency Committee on School Construction has approved about $60 million in school construction requests, Wednesday’s daylong public hearing before the Board of Public Works offered counties a last-ditch attempt to appeal for additional funds.
The committee is recommending $78.5 million be disbursed for projects next fiscal year, with about $60 million already allocated, said Yale Stenzler, executive director of the state’s Public School Construction Consortium.
The remainder of the money, while small, is in high demand.
“Some tough decisions are going to have to be made,” said Ehrlich’s spokeswoman, Shareese DeLeaver. “They do have high hopes. But the fact is, the coffers are dry right now.”
School officials and legislators made their cases heard anyway before Ehrlich, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Nancy Kopp, the board’s three members. It was the governor’s first board meeting since he was sworn in Jan. 15.
“We appeal before you every year,” said Calvert County Superintendent James Hook, whose school system is one of the fastest growing in Maryland. “We continue to grow, (and) we continue to need your help.”
Calvert County is looking for additional state money to build Huntingtown High School, slated to open in September 2004, Hook said.
The county needs $7.1 million to complete the project, but the IAC allocated just $3.5 million for the project next year, he said. Calvert County officials requested an additional $3.5 million.
“We have to get Huntingtown built,” Hook said.
Like Calvert County, Carroll also has seen increases in secondary school enrollment, and school board members are pushing for money to build an addition to South Carroll High School. That request came on top of discussion about a new elementary center in the southwest part of the county.
Carroll County was allocated just $3.5 million of a $17 million request for construction money.
Considering the state’s fiscal condition, officials chose to ask for just $10.5 million at Wednesday’s hearing, said Susan G. Holt, president of the Board of Education.
Ehrlich was forced to close a $1.7 billion budget gap when he released his budget Friday.
The county with perhaps the largest turnout Wednesday was Prince George’s, which was represented by about two dozen lawmakers, school officials and civic leaders.
Like other counties, the topic turned to overcrowding.
“We have the equivalent of 15 elementary schools with our children in portable (classrooms),” said Iris Metts, superintendent of Prince George’s County Schools. “We are in a catch-up mode.”
By 2006, the county will be 6,000 seats under capacity for high school students, said County Executive Jack Johnson. The committee allocated $4.7 million in capital dollars for next year, but that’s not enough, he said.
The group appealed for the remainder of its $35 million request, but Johnson said the county would accept $12 million.
“It’s a real crisis if we continue to shift the cost,” Johnson said.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan told the board the “tremendous pressures in growth” are having such an effect on schools that the county’s appeal for construction money in 2005 will be even higher than the $18 million request for 2004.
“Next (fiscal) year, we’ll come in with $50 million,” Duncan said.
Wednesday’s hearing began after 10 a.m. with appeals from Anne Arundel County legislators, and ran all day ending with Wicomico. Many counties were represented by their full delegations – a matter that drew attention from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, in the morning session. “Have you ever seen anything more ridiculous than delegations parading before the Board of Public Works?” Miller said. “The schools that need the money most should get it and that’s it … regardless of how many people show up.”