To build or not to build schools

February 08, 1994

The name of one county task force created last year to study school construction issues said it all: The Ugly Alternatives Committee. It was so titled because the substitutes to building new schools -- redistricting, year-round schools, temporarily facilities -- are often considered odious.

Marylanders, and the people put in charge of running their public schools, have gotten comfortable -- perhaps even addicted -- to the system of the past generation, in which the state footed most of the bill for new schools.

Since 1971, when then-Gov. Marvin Mandel created the pioneering Maryland school funding program, state government has shouldered nearly $3 billion in local school-building debt. The state shelled out up to $300 million for local school construction in those early years, but aid in the mid-'80s dropped as low as $30 million (and is now up to about $80 million).

The school construction crunch today is neither unprecedented nor unsolvable. Although public school enrollment is expected to grow by one-sixth into the 21st century, compare that to a near 50 percent jump from 1947 to 1954, at the height of the post-war baby boom. About 40,000 children then had to attend school in shifts, or in makeshift or rented buildings. Interestingly, there was a reluctance even then to assume debt to build schools -- a mind set that wouldn't change for 20 years.

So, it's deja vu all over again. Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who has doubled school construction aid in his tenure, is pushing year-round schooling to make better use of buildings and hold down costs. Next Monday he will announce six school systems that will receive grants (of seven that applied) to study or implement such a system. The public, however, hasn't been quick to embrace either year-round schools or redistricting students to schools outside their neighborhoods.

The other alternative is for local governments to assume more of the debt to build new schools. Aside from the weighty issue of taxation, the problem with new schools is that they can become outmoded over decades by changes in educational theories, architectural tastes and growth patterns. But the problem with not building schools is that no other public building so solidifies a community; in fact, there isn't much to solidify life in many growing suburbs other than schools, which play host to multiple social and civic functions.

The political decision of whether to borrow for new schools is strictly a local one. If a jurisdiction doesn't want to foot the bill for schools, and opts for an alternative such as year-round schools, fine. But the era in which the counties could rely on the state to solve this problem is over.

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