ANNAPOLIS — In a heated discussion with a state official, Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot aired their serious concerns about the state’s spending on education, particularly for public school construction projects.
“We can’t just keep shoveling more and more money without accountability,” Hogan said. “The taxpayers are getting pretty frustrated with the results.”
David Lever, the executive director of the state’s Public School Construction Program, appeared before the board to explain a contract for additional spending for local school systems with significant enrollment growth or relocatable classrooms. In the contract, which was approved 3-0 by the board, $5,864,000 went to Gaithersburg High School and $1,046,000 went to Severna Park High School.
Franchot, a Democrat, emphasized that he had no problems funding work on individual schools, but questioned the way the state’s public construction money is spent.
In Wednesday’s meeting, Lever said that the Interagency Committee on School Construction doesn’t have the power to control how districts spend the state funds.
“The money can be spent any way they want,” he said. “This is state money.”
And in a public Interagency Committee on School Construction meeting Sept. 17, Lever emphasized the role the recession played in escalating public school construction costs.
“Five years ago, school construction had steady funding. Today, it’s a different thing altogether,” Lever said in September. “Construction costs have gone up considerably and they have to cut back … The recession hurt construction because they lost people and they can’t get people to come back.”
The state expects $500 million more this year than originally budgeted, and $215 million more for next fiscal year, said Jake Weissman, deputy chief of staff for Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr.
Earlier this week, Miller and other Democratic legislative leaders challenged the governor, a Republican, to spend the state’s surplus money on education.
Democratic legislative leaders want Hogan to put $68 million more toward the GCEI, the Geographic Cost of Education Index, which distributes additional funds to specific school districts. Based on funding in previous years, the 13 districts expected about twice that much this fiscal year, but Hogan, after a spring budget battle with Democratic leaders in the General Assembly, agreed to fund about half of it.
Hogan spokesman Douglass Mayer said in a statement the state faces a nearly $1 billion cumulative deficit in the next five years, and the governor wants to pay in to what he considers a vastly underfunded state pension system.
“(T)his administration funded education at record levels this past year and it will remain a top priority going forward,” Mayer said in the statement. “Gov. Hogan was the first governor in the history of the state to fund GCEI in his first year in office and he will be the first governor to fully fund it in his second year.”
In the Board of Public Works meeting Wednesday, Hogan said that education was his “top priority,” citing his administration’s spending on schools, which he said was the highest in state history. Still, he said, he’d like to see state and individual school districts improve their spending plans and fiscal responsibility.
“The public wants better results and, for God’s sake, they want safe classrooms that are climate-controlled,” Franchot said, referring to a lack of air conditioning in some Baltimore County schools.
“I understand the input — we vote on money,” the comptroller said. “But what’s the outcome? … This is what drives our citizens crazy. They all want to support education. But what’s the result?”
The board, including Treasurer Nancy Kopp, D, also approved the following contracts with a vote of 3-0:
*A combined 14 emergency service contracts, totalling $3,478,367, connected with the closing of the Baltimore City Men’s Detention Center in July. The building’s closure relocated the 1,100 prisoners being housed there, and the emergency service contracts were for maintenance in the new locations. The detention center was the site of food service contract issues earlier this year and a home to the Black Guerilla Family gang.
*A 6-month, $416,126 emergency contract, with a 3-month extension option, to the Environmental Systems Research Institute for geographic information system software. The contract appeared before the board previously, but was tabled for a later vote after Franchot and Hogan challenged the company’s relationship to former Gov. Martin O’Malley, who signed a $140,000 speaking contract with ESRI. The emergency was declared on Sept. 16, as the Department of Information Technology claimed it was a vital state service.
*A contract under protest by Turlington Valuation Associations Inc. for nursing home appraisal services. The contract was granted to Page Appraisals Inc., after Turlington requested a waiver for release from the minority business enterprise requirement and was denied. This is the second contested contract approved by the board under Hogan’s administration in the face of protest. Under the O’Malley administration, the board approved 11 contracts in the face of protest, deferred one and had two contracts withdrawn.