State to cut Balto. County's share of schools funding by $1.5 million

Use of money to renovate older schools is blamed

April 07, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Senate voted this week to reduce Baltimore County's share of school reconstruction money by nearly $1.5 million despite protests from county senators.

The county lost more than seven times as much as any other jurisdiction from what state officials said was a reassessment of the needs of Maryland's aging schools. The money comes from a $10.3 million pool, and other school systems' gains were Baltimore County's loss.

The change for Baltimore County was so great because the way it has renovated its schools in recent years made it difficult for the state to estimate their age.

"We got penalized because we put more money into aging schools than other counties," said state Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., who tried to amend the bill. "It's a shame."

Baltimore City schools received a $720,000 boost from the recalculation, and Anne Arundel was awarded nearly $300,000 more. Howard County schools gained $84,000. The biggest winner was Prince George's County, which saw its allocation increase by more than $1 million.

Others also lost in the reshuffling -- Carroll County's allocation dropped by $152,000 and Harford County's by $31,000.

Most counties have either funded small-scale repairs to aging schools, such as replacing roofs, or done complete rehabilitation, usually including the addition of new classroom space or other enhancements, said David Lever, executive director of Maryland's Public School Construction Program.

But under former County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Baltimore County engaged in "multisystem" renovations -- such as replacing roofs, windows, electrical systems and other items but not adding classrooms or conducting a total rehabilitation. The idea was to prolong the lives of as many schools as possible.

This presented a conundrum for state officials.

The state bases its allocations on the amount of nonrenovated space each county has in schools built before 1960; the new bill would make the date 1970. The state considers completely rehabbed schools to be brand new, but when it came to Baltimore County, it didn't seem fair to consider the schools to be new or old, Lever said.

So the state split the difference, making the effective construction date of many of them after 1970.

"It was a judgment call," Lever said.

Baltimore County schools spokesman Douglas J. Neilson said the school board was aware that the bill would result in a reduction of aid to the county but supported it anyway. Other provisions in the bill, such as reducing the standard size of an elementary school class from 25 to 23 pupils, could result in more construction funding in the long run, he said.

Rodger Janssen, a vice president of the Baltimore County PTA Council, said Baltimore County is being penalized for spending its school renovation money in a rational, cost-effective and nonpolitical way.

"We're going to have schools that just aren't going to be rehabbed at all because we don't have the money," he said.

The cut wouldn't take effect until 2006, and Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. will lobby to reverse it, said his spokeswoman, Renee Samuels.

"We did what we needed to keep our children in a learning environment by making critical renovations such as fixing plumbing, electrical and heating systems and replacing leaking windows, and ceilings damaged by leaking roofs," she wrote in an e-mail. "We should be rewarded for our fiscal responsibility."

Howard County officials were unaware of the bill or its potential effects but said yesterday they wouldn't turn away found money.

"We could definitely use [the $84,000], there's no doubt about it," said school system spokeswoman Patty Caplan.

Sun staff writer Tricia Bishop contributed to this article.

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