ANNAPOLIS – School officials from across the state campaigned the Maryland Board of Public Works on Wednesday for public school construction funding, an annual event known as the “Hope-A-Thon.”
Officials from school districts across Maryland appeared before Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, and Treasurer Nancy Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot, both Democrats, on Wednesday to argue for the allocation of funds dedicated to public school construction.
In the past year, Hogan and Franchot have often expressed their concerns about how groups plan to spend the capital funds they request.
In Hogan’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget, about $280 million will be devoted to the State School Construction Program, with an additional $8.4 million from a Fiscal Year 2016 allocation.
“We’ve continued to have record funding for education, and per pupil spending has increased in every jurisdiction,” Hogan said. “We must be vigilant in overseeing how these dollars are spent.”
Of these funds, about $218.4 million will be given to specific projects, leaving a statewide contingency of about $70 million of unallocated funds. At the meeting, also known as a “beg-a-thon,” school district officials each had 10 minutes to convince the board to give their jurisdictions a portion of these unassigned funds.
The meeting, which began at 10 a.m., was almost 7 hours long, ending just before 5 p.m.
While weather conditions prevented some district representatives from attending, others were still able to attend. This included officials from Baltimore City and Baltimore County, who discussed the lack of air conditioning units in local schools.
Board members also voted 3-0 to make the installation of these air conditioning units eligible for state funding, as previous state regulations did not address air conditioning units.
In Baltimore County, 35 public schools don’t have air conditioning, forcing kids to “endure conditions that are unsafe, unhealthy and inhumane,” Franchot said.
“We want (kids) to get the best education they can get,” said Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, R-Baltimore County. “But in the heat of the day on an August afternoon, kids are trying to learn math, English and history, and it’s very unbearable. Let’s give something back to our kids.”
Franchot said Anne Arundel County was able to install air conditioning units for all classrooms in a matter of weeks, not years, and Baltimore County should do the same.
But in Baltimore City, officials told the board that 32 of the 1,940 non-air conditioned classrooms in the area had units installed over a 2-week period, marking an improvement.
“But what about the others? Seriously. Let’s move forward,” said Franchot. “You need to put boxed air conditioning in these classrooms. If you don’t, it’s a dereliction in duty. Please, go get the job done.”
The air conditioning issue is one that has been on Franchot’s radar for months. In December 2015, he sent an angry letter to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Michael Busch, both Democrats, asking for a joint legislative hearing about the units. Miller’s response criticized Franchot for being “overly dramatic,” igniting a letter war between the them.
In Fiscal Year 2016, over $38 million of the capital budget was spent on public school construction in Baltimore County. Hogan said if the state continues to provide these funds, the project needs to get done in a timely manner.
“If we’re allocating hundreds of millions of dollars, we’ll tell them how to spend it,” Hogan said.
With a limited budget for public school spending, Sen. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, said a major question is whether or not spending extra money on the “bells and whistles,” or unnecessary details such as a sound system for a school auditorium, are necessary in building successful institutions.
John F. Barr, president of the Maryland Association of Counties, added that the chief impediment in the construction debate rested on uniformity and standardization in construction, rather than focusing on the specifics.
“We need more efficient building techniques,” Barr said. “Standardization doesn’t equal cheap.”