Construction needs of county schools a priority for Smith

Executive is compiling wish list for the coming General Assembly session

`It is clearly the pivotal issue'

December 27, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

James T. Smith Jr.,

Baltimore County plans to focus its legislative lobbying on the construction needs of its aging schools amid predictions that money from the state for school projects will be severely limited again next year.

County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said recently that while he has not yet finalized his wish list for the General Assembly session, which begins Jan. 12, the school system's capital needs are an obvious top priority.

"If you think about government responsibility, once you get past protection of citizens, what's the next priority? Education," he said. "It is clearly the pivotal issue."

Smith said he is finalizing his legislative agenda - weighing talks with legislators and information about how big a pot of money they have to work with.

"It gives me the full picture before I make my submission," he said. "There's nothing gained by early submission, frankly."

Other funding wishes

He said he plans to announce the county's top needs for the session after the first of the year, but before the session starts. In addition to education, Smith has mentioned other funding wishes, from Project Open Space money to infrastructure funds for a Towson project.

Del. Patrick L. McDonough, an east-side Republican who has been critical of the executive, said Smith's timing "puts us behind the proverbial eight-ball.

"It gives us less time to work on legislators in the General Assembly," he said. "The more time you have on your side, the better chance of the legislation passing."

Leaders in other jurisdictions, including Baltimore City and Howard County, have announced their wish lists.

But Smith's predecessor, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, said Smith's timing is no different from his own. During his two terms as county executive, Ruppersberger said, he would bring legislators together in early January to announce his agenda for the session - after working with individual delegates and senators throughout the year.

Del. Adrienne A. Jones, a Randallstown Democrat who serves as speaker pro tempore of the House, said she knows that the list of priorities is evolving and that Smith is getting "all his ducks in a row before he presents it."

Jones and several other legislators, like Smith, said school construction remains high on the list of county needs.

Other local issues mentioned by legislators include revitalization efforts in places such as Dundalk, Towson and Randallstown; money for the Community College of Baltimore County; and preservation of farmland.

New high school

Del. J.B. Jennings, an east-side Republican, said he wants to keep the pressure on for a new northeast high school to relieve crowding - a project that Smith has not backed.

And Del. Joseph J. "Sonny" Minnick, a Dundalk Democrat and head of the county's House delegation, said he expects discussion about medical malpractice tort reform will be important to the county, which is home to several hospitals.

While he is still waiting for Smith to announce his agenda, state Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Dundalk Democrat who leads the county's Senate delegation, said he knows that additional requests for school construction money are in the works.

The county "put a lot of money out themselves and feel they should be getting more from the state," he said.

The school board has sent its wish list - with a price tag of more than $70 million - to state officials charged with weighing the requests of school systems across the state.

Project funding

So far, six projects accounting for $5.08 million of Baltimore County's list are included in the $80 million worth of projects the Interagency Committee on School Construction is recommending that the Board of Public Works approve, according to a letter sent to the county this month.

With the state spending about $100 million for school construction annually, Smith, who took part in a letter-writing campaign to state officials about building needs, said he expects "building better schools" to be an emphasis in several jurisdictions this year.

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