Schools seek more funds for buildings

City, county leaders are asking state for $400 million next year

September 20, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,sun reporter

Hoping to catch up with a $2 billion statewide construction and maintenance backlog, the leaders of Baltimore and the state's five biggest counties asked Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday to spend $400 million next year to build and renovate schools statewide.

The request competes with calls for tax cuts, state worker raises and more funding for state programs as administration officials decide what to do with the state's $600 million budget surplus. But the executives said they believe school construction is the best use for a large part of the money because it would address a growing problem and would do nothing to worsen the projected state budget deficits in the years to come.

"With the state's recent announcement of a budget surplus, we believe the state has an opportunity to put us back on track and to reaffirm education and [a] quality educational instructional environment as our top statewide priority for the coming budget," the executives wrote.

School construction emerged as a major issue in last year's legislative session when Ehrlich promised to add an extra $100 million a year in funding if the legislature agreed to legalize slot machine gambling.

His budget proposal allocated $155 million to school construction, a $55 million increase from the year before but still well short of the $250 million a year that a study commission had determined would be necessary to catch up on the state's $2 billion backlog. The legislature couldn't agree on a slots bill, but it managed to boost construction funding to $250 million anyway.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said it's too early in the budget process to commit to their request.

"The governor believes that safe and modernized schools are critical to a good education," Fawell said. "He looks forward to giving this careful consideration."

The request comes from the executives of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties and the mayor of Baltimore.

Baltimore County spokesman Donald I. Mohler III said the time for a large investment is right because the state needs to make up for the underfunding in previous years and because the cost of construction materials, such as steel and cement, is going up.

The school construction push unites the interests of a variety of communities, urban and suburban, old and new.

Baltimore has the state's oldest schools and has more than $1 billion in maintenance and renovation needs, said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Counties with fast-growing school populations, such as Howard and Montgomery, have large unmet needs for new schools.

andy.green@baltsun.com

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