Sagging roofs. Boilers about to burst. Crowded schools ringed by students learning in trailers.
From Frederick County, where student growth is exploding, to Baltimore County and Baltimore City, home to the state's oldest schools, officials paint a bleak picture of crowded and deteriorating schools.
Maryland's local governments are making a pitch for more state money for school construction and repairs, an issue that Republicans and Democrats agree is a top concern on their agendas for the 90-day General Assembly session.
Though school systems received record levels of state funding for operating expenses over the past two years, spending on school construction has plummeted to less than half the amount when former Gov. Parris N. Glendening was in office. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. put about $100 million in the budget each of the past two years for school capital projects.
"We really are in a crisis situation," Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. told state officials at a meeting last week. "You can just see there's an immense problem. We're not talking bells and whistles. We're talking basics."
Across the state, the refrain is the same. The Maryland Association of Counties and Maryland Association of Boards of Education have made school construction funding their primary lobbying focus this year.
They have ammunition. A task force created by the General Assembly and headed by State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp issued a report last year that concluded, "Maryland faces a crisis in public school construction." While needs have increased, state funding declined from a peak of $286 million in fiscal 2002 to about $100 million last year, the report said.
The state's schools, it said, require a total of $3.85 billion in capital improvements to reach minimum standards. The report said $2 billion of that should come from the state, or $250 million a year for the next eight years. Ehrlich's budget for next year, unveiled Wednesday, calls for increasing school construction funding to $155 million.
Maryland's public school construction program dates to 1971 and is designed to ensure that all schools meet minimum standards, said David Lever, the program's executive director.
To that end, the state supplements local funds, paying a minimum of 50 percent of costs to a maximum of 97 percent, depending on a district's wealth, growth rate and local contributions. This year, the cumulative request from school districts was $595 million - over $200 million more than they sought the previous year.
"This does reflect genuine need," said Lever. "The majority, the vast majority, are worthy projects."
Many school districts have used local dollars to pay for renovations and are now seeking reimbursement from the state. Also, local districts are facing state mandates, such as all-day kindergarten classes.
"That's another heartburn," said David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties. "You've got to build classrooms. You've got to rehabilitate old classrooms. It's a big expense." State officials "impose this mandate, and it exacerbates an already significant problem."
But as Ehrlich, a Republican, and the legislature's Democratic leaders push for more school construction money, each seems to be using the issue to gain momentum for one or more of their pet initiatives.
For Ehrlich and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, that involves pushing for a slots bill that would dedicate some of the revenue to school construction. For Assembly Republicans that means trying again to repeal the state's prevailing wage law, which could reduce the cost of wages paid to construction companies. And for House Speaker Michael E. Busch, that involves trying to close a corporate real estate tax loophole and dedicating the money to school construction, a move that failed in the Senate last year.
Last week, Ehrlich repeatedly told local officials that the state could add another $100 million a year to school construction funds if the legislature approves a bill legalizing slot machines, a politically charged issue that has failed the past two years.
"I sound like a broken record because I am," Ehrlich said. "We have wasted the opportunity to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on school construction for the past two years."
Ehrlich previously has pointed to slots as a means to raise funds for operating expenses for schools, and Busch dismissed the governor's latest proposal to designate the money for construction. "Maybe next year we can tie [slots] to senior citizen funding," Busch said jokingly.
"Last year, our kids couldn't get an education unless there were slots. This year, our kids can't get the schools to sit in unless there are slots. The message keeps getting through - the children are being held hostage," Busch said.
Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a Bethesda-based polling firm, said linking slots to an initiative such as school construction is smart politics.