Bricks and mortar

November 17, 2003

POLICY-MAKERS WHO review a first-of-its-kind survey of the physical condition of Maryland's public schools may at last see what principals see every day: Bricks and mortar matter when educational goals are set.

Here's an example: The state school board is considering this winter whether to make its new end-of-course biology test a requirement for graduation. Yet 35 percent of the state's high school and middle school science labs are inadequate, according to the new state task force survey.

Eighteen of the state's 24 school districts predict some of their schools will lack enough permanent classrooms to house their projected enrollments by 2007. That's the year by which districts are to launch all-day kindergarten programs, requiring appropriate facilities for 5-year-olds; many want the state's help to fulfill this mandate.

A third and more of the applicable schools statewide are substandard in areas such as accessibility for disabled students, suitability of kindergarten classrooms, and space for fine arts and health services.

In coming days, the task force will estimate the cost of bringing them up to par. Typically, school districts pay the greater balance, so some, such as the financially hobbled Baltimore City schools, have for too long postponed certain upgrades to aging facilities while others, such as Montgomery County, are able to levy impact taxes on development to build new schools.

State help is limited: School districts have put $400 million in renovation and construction requests before the state already this year - a wish list four times the $100 million that Maryland plans to spend.

It's an object lesson: For the future, local and state policy-makers must remember that this is what's reaped when sprawl goes unchecked and old buildings aren't routinely upgraded.

Cataloging the condition of the state's 1,300-plus public schools will be an exercise in futility if it does not lead the state and districts to revise their spending priorities to dovetail with educational goals, seek alternatives for financing school construction and repair, and enlist the corporate community to invest. Worth considering are several trailblazing public-private partnerships in Florida, Virginia and the District of Columbia, and the potential for corporate sponsorships to improve, for example, school labs, health suites and playground equipment. Also possible is an extension to the school districts of an energy-savings contract used to modernize state buildings.

Alternative financing may prove more expensive than the traditional use of public bonds to fund school construction, and likely would require changes in state law.

Neither obstacle, however, should deter the state's task force on public school facilities from seeking new resources to make older schools safe, ease overcrowding in schools in growing communities, and ensure that building inadequacies don't thwart efforts to meet the learning goals.

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