ANNAPOLIS – While legislators and school officials pleaded for more school construction money at an annual session of the Board of Public Works Wednesday, Gov. Robert Ehrlich made a plea of his own for support of a future slot machine gambling bill.
“Should a slots bill be passed, there will be another $100 million dollars a year for school construction,” Ehrlich repeated several times throughout the day.
The annual BPW meeting, colloquially called the “beg-a-thon,” is designated for school officials and leaders to ask for additional state funding.
School construction projects are known to be underfunded, so the future slots bill would be a way to bring more money to the building and renovating of schools, Ehrlich said. Slot machine gambling legislation has failed the past two years.
Ehrlich has already allocated $155 million for schools, a substantial increase from the $100 million that he designated last year.
The money is still less than the nearly $600 million that schools requested for construction projects this fiscal year, according to David Lever, executive director of the Maryland Public School Construction Program.
One by one, officials from Baltimore and each county lined up in front of the Board of Public Works, which consists of Ehrlich, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, to express their need for money for construction of a new school, renovations or just to replace an old roof.
But some school officials were quickly reminded that they would not receive all their requests when interrupted by the comptroller with orders to cut the list to only a few items.
“Tell me what your priorities are,” Schaefer said.
In Anne Arundel County, money was needed for a $4 million all-day kindergarten facility in Ferndale and air conditioning at Arundel High School, the only school without air conditioning in the county, costing $2 million.
Baltimore schools originally asked for $33 million, but have received $4.7 million so far. Their top priorities were the renovation of three schools.
“We really need $5 billion,” said Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon, who was there along with Mayor Martin O’Malley. “But we are only dealing with the immediate (needs).”
Howard County schools requested $56 million, but only received $3 million. Sydney Cousin, Howard County Schools superintendent, pleaded for the board to reconsider deferring new school construction projects.
After his presentation, Cousin was asked how much more he expected to receive:
“None,” he said.
No slots bill has been introduced into the General Assembly yet this session, however, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, said he intends to present a slots plan to the Legislature and didn’t mind Ehrlich publicizing it.
“It’s a very smart political thing for him to do,” Miller said.
Some county officials, including Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson, did not agree with the slots method for funding schools.
“It’s a tax against the poor,” Johnson said. “It forces the poor to disproportionately pay for education.”
The Montgomery County Executive has also consistently disagreed with combining slots with funding education.
“We don’t believe the education needs of our children should be held hostage to expanded gambling,” said David Weaver, spokesman for Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan. “We oppose slots and the effort of the government to link slots to funding schools.”