Pushing for school funds

Officials, pointing to BRAC pressure, seek $60 million from state

December 10, 2006|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

In the pursuit of state school construction money last year, most county and state elected officials were in agreement that Harford County came up short. Their initial request paled in comparison to those made by other jurisdictions, and they missed out completely when $91 million was later doled out.

This year, Harford officials have asked for nearly $60 million, compared with last year's $17 million request, as part of County Executive David R. Craig's plan to build or renovate seven schools by 2010.

But the result this year could be similar. A report by the state Interagency Committee on School Construction recommended that Harford receive $9.9 million -- or about $1 million less than last year -- despite the significantly larger request. County officials and school leaders plan to urge the county's State House delegation to push for additional funding.

"The state has to recognize that we can't absorb the entire burden of what BRAC is going to put on Harford County," said County Council President Billy Boniface, a Republican, referring to a nationwide military base realignment that is bringing new jobs -- and residents -- to the county. "It benefits the entire state and the federal government, and we should have higher consideration than other jurisdictions."

But the chairman of the county delegation said political realities might hinder that effort.

"I think in the best of all worlds, we should get some extra consideration because of BRAC, but we're still competing with other counties with the same overcrowding problems. ... That makes it tough for counties like ours," said Republican Del. Barry Glassman.

During his campaign, Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley committed to providing $400 million in school construction money in the coming fiscal year and $250 million a year after. But that could prove difficult to fulfill, given reports from analysts that Maryland could face fiscal troubles within the next few years.

School funding is just a part of the broader conversation about how Harford County plans to equip itself for a burst of growth in the next few years as thousands of jobs land at and around Aberdeen Proving Ground as a result of the military's base realignment and closure process, known as BRAC. All county departments expect a strain on services and have been identifying key infrastructure needs; federal money will cover a percentage of the costs --none of the school plans.

While the state committee recommended just $9.9 million for Harford this year, there could be room for growth. The committee only recommended $4.6 million for the county last year, but the final total was about $11 million.

Out of more than a dozen school construction projects the county is seeking state dollars for this year, only two were recommended for funding -- $8.7 million of the $14.7 million requested for the Patterson Mill Middle and High School complex; and $1.2 million of the $4.7 million requested for the renovation of Joppatowne Elementary.

The committee recommended against funding a $17.4 million request for Bel Air High, where Craig unveiled his school construction plan, and $5.3 million to build a new elementary school in the Route 543 area.

Craig has pledged to "forward-fund" some of the school projects in hopes of recouping state dollars later, as the county did with Patterson Mill, which is set to open next fall. But Glassman said a county's willingness to front the money can make it harder to collect funds after the fact.

According to Roxanne Lynch, the county's director of government and community relations, Craig was the only county executive to make an in-person pitch to the committee last week for more funds.

Harford asked for $17.4 million in capital funding from the state last year -- a paltry figure when compared with jurisdictions such as Baltimore County, which asked for $110 million just for renovations, and Washington County, which asked for $21 million. County officials said they had kept their request modest in hopes that the state would see that they were only asking for what they needed.

It didn't happen. Working off of the small request, the state committee's initial recommendation was far below what officials expected, and they came away with nothing when an additional $91 million was made available.

The county's delegation drew criticism after Glassman rebuked Del. Susan K. McComas in the House of Delegates chamber after she pleaded with fellow legislators to approve additional funds for Harford.

"She does not reflect the sentiment of my delegation," he told his colleagues, later saying in an interview that she risked alienating other members. Craig's chief of staff said the incident was reflective of "politics as usual."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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