New schools of thought? Subtle changes under way in approach to school construction.

November 21, 1995

"BUILD IT and they will come" may still be a philosophy for stadiums, but apparently less so for school construction. Some of the Maryland jurisdictions that have fared well in the school construction derby in the past seem to be taking a harder look at other options.

The Maryland Interagency for School Construction is now culling requests for funding and some of the numbers may surprise: Harford County, which has opened seven new schools in the past five years alone to suit its development corridor, didn't ask for a nickel for new schools this time around. And, Montgomery County is asking for $71 million, not small potatoes, but still way down from the $85 million it sought last year. (That may just be a one-year downturn, however, officials there say.)

Historically, school building in Maryland has been a boom-bust industry. In the early 1970s, Gov. Marvin Mandel and the legislature spent more than $1 billion in five years to accommodate the latter wave of baby boomers.

Not long after those facilities opened, however, enrollment plunged. In the early 1980s, the need for new classrooms had so tapered off, the state allocated only one-tenth the total it had provided just a decade earlier. By the 1990s, though, the baby boom had spawned a baby boomlet and the cry for construction money returned. Last year's allocation, $108 million, was the largest in nearly a generation.

Now, the pendulum may be swinging back. "This will be a very difficult year for local governments, the county and the school system," Howard Superintendent Michael E. Hickey warned the school board last month. While the numbers themselves don't reveal much acknowledgment of pain -- five new elementaries and three new middle schools being planned by 1999, Howard must keep up with some of the most explosive growth in the

nation.

The governor and legislative leaders are committed to spending about $120 million on school construction and renovation for the 1997 fiscal year. That's roughly 40 percent of the sum being requested, about par for recent years. With Gov. Parris Glendening's stated emphasis on expanding existing facilities and a greater conservatism seeping onto school boards, there seems a general, if subtle, hesitancy about building new schools.

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