Leftover school funds sought

Politicians flatter, cajole for surplus education dollars

`The beg-athon'

February 10, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

In the State House hallways of Annapolis, people grit their teeth and call it "the beg-athon" -- the annual gathering of local officials from across Maryland intent on cajoling and flattering the state's top officials for what's left of the $262 million in school construction money.

The state Board of Public Works approved a plan to spend $193.4 million at the end of hearings yesterday, and a vote on how to divide the remaining $68.6 million will occur in May.

Although some privately disparage the long day of hearings before the Board of Public Works, earnest pleading was the order of the day as officials from 14 of 24 Maryland jurisdictions appealed for a larger share of the money available.

The one half-joking exception was Prince George's County Council Chairwoman Dorothy Bailey, who smiled at Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Richard N. Dixon and said, "In the tradition of sucking up, we are delighted to be here." Prince George's officials are hoping for $15 million more, to reach their total request of $44 million.

Townsend, who was addressed at one point by Carroll County Republican Sen. Larry E. Haines as "governor to be," wore a fixed smile for most of the five hours of hearings. She was filling in for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who was with his wife, Frances Hughes Glendening, who was ill.

Haines, a conservative Republican often at odds with Democrats, was so in the spirit of the day he jokingly referred to Schaefer, a Democrat and former governor, as "one of the greatest men on the face of the earth," before joining in general applause for Glendening's generosity in school funding. Carroll officials sought no extra money for school construction yesterday, but they want approval to plan four projects, including a $35 million high school in Westminster.

Townsend said it was a learning experience for her.

"I think it's helpful to see the diversity of the needs. It gives a face or a picture for a request for dollars," she said during a brief lunch break.

Appeals ranged from $427,000 requested by Charles County for help renovating an elementary school and enclosing an outdoor swimming pool for year-round use, to Howard County's plea for an additional $36 million -- mainly to help build a high school in Fulton and to repay the county for locally funded schools built over the past decade.

Yale Stenzler, executive director of the state's Interagency Committee on School Construction, told the board that the money approved after the hearings will pay for 66 new schools and additions, 193 renovations and 132 technology upgrades, plus 23 portable classrooms.

Although the state has more money than ever in what Townsend called this "golden era" of education spending, Stenzler said total requests were $356 million -- far more than what's available.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan confidently asked for another $9 million, noting 2,800 new students this year and 10,000 more expected over the next six years.

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger asked for $14.7 million more in schools funding. He said the request for extra money is justified based on the county's hiring of a professional management company this week to oversee its spending. Baltimore County has embarked on an ambitious renovation program, starting with 43 older elementary schools.

Baltimore City officials said they need $13 million more to replace boilers at Patterson High School, Rodman and Mount Washington elementary schools, and to build an elementary/middle school at Lexington Terrace, where new homes are rising to replace demolished public housing.

"That could change that community tremendously," City Council President Sheila Dixon told the board.

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens boasted about the county's new approach as she sought an extra $9.3 million to address a $134 million backlog of deferred maintenance, additions and renovation projects.

"We are a unified team," she said.

Cecil County pleaded for more money to deal with an increasing migration of new residents from nearby Delaware. Worcester County officials complained that despite Ocean City's seasonal prosperity, their county has the highest unemployment rate and the lowest family income in the state.

State Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a Wicomico-Dorchester Republican, told the board that yesterday was his 50th birthday and he was there "to ask for presents" for Wicomico. Howard County Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Columbia Democrat, brought along 10-year-old James David from Northfield Elementary School near Ellicott City and introduced him to the board; Schaefer scoffed at her tactics, jokingly accusing her of trying to gain sympathy.

Despite the flattery and corny gestures, Treasurer Dixon said the personal appeals are worthwhile.

Without them, he would never have inspected Salisbury Middle School a few years ago -- an old building that Wicomico County officials were thinking of demolishing. Now it's renovated. "I would never have recognized it," he said, proud that the Board of Public Works preserved a school in an older black community.

To critics who call for the state's nearly billion-dollar surplus to be spent on a tax cut instead of more spending on schools, Dixon had a clear message.

"We shouldn't give it back to people at $30 or $40 a family. We should invest it in education."

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