New schools of thought? $289 million sought: Subtle changes under way in approach to school construction.

November 22, 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 Committee on 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. 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.) And Howard County officials, too, have been talking about the need to rethink responses to growth.

Historically, school building in the Free State 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 later 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. Harford Executive Eileen Rehrmann, who with that county's legislative delegation was often successful at winning new school aid, speaks more about using "underutilized facilities" -- code words for redistricting. That option would be a bitter pill in Harford, as it is elsewhere.

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 request of $289 million -- par for recent years. With Gov. Parris Glendening's stated emphasis on expanding existing facilities, more conservatism seeping onto school boards and statewide enrollment expected to drop after the year 2002, there seems a general, if subtle, hesitancy about building new schools.

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