School Construction Gap

August 08, 1993

The surging school-age population is forcing officials in Annapolis to confront a problem they have tried for the past decade to ignore: far more money must be spent on building new schools to make room for these new students.

That's an unpleasant message for state officials. Somehow, the state of Maryland needs to come up with a pot of money to pay for these new schools. It won't be easy because so much money is needed.

Just last winter, local schools requested $200 million from the state for new elementary, middle and high schools. They got $80 million.

But the demand is mild compared to what lies ahead.

Another 65,000 children are expected to be of school age in 1995 and an additional 52,000 by the year 2000. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that as the population bubble moves through the decade, the overcrowding moves from the lower grades to the upper grades, where costs are far higher for new buildings. For instance, an elementary school for 600 students costs $6 million, but a high school for 1,400 students costs $18 million.

Some counties have felt this crunch in school capacity for too many years. Howard County, for instance, expects to see a 50 percent surge in the size of its student body this decade. Carroll, Frederick, Calvert and Montgomery counties aren't far behind.

A gubernatorial task force led by former Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer recommended this summer a modest increase next year to $85 million in state school-building funds, with a cap set at $100 million in later years. But will that be enough? It could take a decade or more to catch up with the needs at that rate.

Like it or not, state legislators and the Schaefer administration should seriously consider a major infusion of funds at one time -- a quick catch-up program. Maryland might have to exceed its capital debt affordability limit for that year, but it would be worth it. Rather than ignoring the pleas of local school officials for desperately needed new or renovated facilities, the state ought to attack the problem head-on. It would be a wise investment in Maryland's future.

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