Building schools

December 02, 2004

WITHIN THE next decade, Maryland will need to spend nearly $4 billion on its schools to accommodate more students, satisfy requirements for smaller classes and bring all schools up to minimum standards. That's a huge commitment at a time of declining state dollars. But as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the state legislature look at competing demands on the state purse before the next legislative session, they should consider money for school construction as a reasonable and prudent investment in the state's long-term financial and social health.

A comprehensive assessment of school construction needs was conducted by a state task force that presented its final report in February. Identifying a school construction "crisis," the task force estimated that $3.85 billion (in 2003 dollars) would need to be spent on public schools by 2013 to bring them up to minimum standards of health and safety as well as to implement basic, required educational programs.

According to the task force, about 40 percent of the money, or $1.54 billion, would cover increased enrollment, from elementary to high schools, anticipated by the school year that starts in 2007. The rest of the money would be used to make essential improvements in existing schools, such as satisfying health and safety standards and adding gyms, lunchrooms, assembly rooms and other accommodations.

The task force recommended that the state pay $2 billion of the cost while local governments pay the remaining $1.85 billion. Although the state seems set to provide about $100 million a year over eight years, that leaves a $1.2 billion shortfall. County executives, reflecting the anxieties of local constituents, are pressing the state to spend more.

Can the state afford an additional $150 million a year over the same eight years, particularly when the effort to deal with building needs also coincides with state efforts to enhance educational opportunities for all students under the Thornton plan? The Capital Debt Affordability Committee concluded in September that the state could probably take on $1.2 billion in general obligation bonds over a number of years without jeopardizing its good rating. But the committee also suggested that the state explore alternative funding structures, new revenue sources or a shift in other capital projects before taking on that much additional debt.

Surely the governor, the legislature, state financial officials and county executives can put their heads together to come up with a plan that will have every Maryland child in a school that is not crumbling or crowded.

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