Smith optimistic about school funds

He thinks board will OK more of the $31.4 million requested for projects

January 23, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said he is confident the state will approve much of the funding the county requested for middle school renovations this year after meeting with the Maryland Board of Public Works yesterday.

Before the legislative session began Jan. 8, Smith had complained about a policy change for state school construction funding that made county renovation projects ineligible unless they added "programmatic enhancements" such as computer labs and libraries when they made repairs.

Largely as a result of that change, Baltimore County had received preliminary approval for $2.9 million of its $31.4 million in school construction requests this year.

Smith and Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said they don't mind the policy in theory, but in a year when neither the state nor the county has the money for new projects, it makes more sense to focus on fixing basic problems rather than trying to add features, they said.

"Frankly, it's just a question that now we don't have the money to do it," Smith said, adding that the county has spent $30 million on programmatic enhancements over the past three years.

"We can't have falling ceilings and broken windows and doors that don't function," he said.

Five years ago, the county launched a $560 million renovation program, working first through the elementary schools and now through the middle schools. This year, the county is seeking $17 million in state funding to repair seven middle schools, including the one in the hometown of the Public Works Board chairman, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"Arbutus, Arbutus, Arbutus, did I say Arbutus?" Smith said in stating the schools slated for repairs, getting a wry smirk from Ehrlich in response.

Other middle schools up for renovations are: Dumbarton, Sparrows Point, Sudbrook Magnet, Middle River, Ridgely and Southwest Academy.

Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who was famous for pulling together entourages for the annual school funding "beg-a-thons," Smith and Hairston were backed by more than 50 county delegates, senators, councilmen, school board members, parents and others.

County representatives also asked for $6.7 million in construction funds for a new Windsor Mill Middle School, which Smith and Hairston said was a key component in alleviating crowding on the county's growing west side.

Although the board made no decisions yesterday, Smith said he is optimistic the county will get funding for the projects it emphasized.

He said he suspects the state will increase its pool of school construction money from $60 million to $100 million and that the county's long-standing financial commitment to basic repairs will position it well to benefit from those additional funds.

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