Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley promised yesterday that his first annual budget will include $400 million for school construction, a commitment he made during the first-ever Maryland Youth Inaugural, held at St. John's College in Annapolis.
"We're making news," said O'Malley, perched on a stool with Lt. Gov.-elect Anthony G. Brown by his side in the school's auditorium. "Don't tell the press this tonight. We don't want them to know until we reveal our budget. ... We are going to put $400 million into school construction this year, in this year's budget."
FOR THE RECORD - A Page 1A article yesterday about Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley's plan to spend $400 million next year on school construction included an incorrect figure for the funding recommendation of a state school facilities panel. The amount is $250 million yearly. THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR
Education is also listed as a key priority for the new administration in a draft of O'Malley's inaugural speech, which he will deliver tomorrow. A copy of the address, obtained by The Sun, has the mayor saying the state must take responsibility for "long-term investment in higher education."
"In Maryland, the opportunity for young people to achieve a better life than their parents is in peril, with college costs rising beyond what families can afford," the draft says.
The speech, to be delivered in front of the State House after O'Malley is sworn in as Maryland's 61st governor, discusses the challenges facing the state and the nation, among them making higher education more accessible, providing health care to the uninsured, curbing rising energy costs and lessening the economic burden on middle-class Americans.
The theme, "Peril and Possibility," echoes throughout.
"As one Maryland," the draft says, "we have choices to make about our shared future. Will we allow our future to be defined solely by peril, by the challenges and difficulties that loom over these next four years? Or will we seize possibility. Will we define our state's future, building on Maryland's strength?"
The draft speech, dated Jan. 9 - aides say it has been revised recently and was written by the governor and top advisers - does not contain specifics for solving those problems and others.
Instead, the address is more thematic and includes many of O'Malley's favorite campaign lines about loving neighbors as ourselves and fostering "a unity of spirit and matter."
Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for the governor, said O'Malley's State of the State address, scheduled for Jan. 31, will include more details about how he proposes to tackle each issue.
O'Malley's school construction announcement drew strong applause from the 200 students, teachers and parents who attended the 90-minute town hall-style event at St. John's. Later, Democratic leaders praised O'Malley but said they want to know how he will pay for the initiative.
"I also want him to keep his other campaign promises," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "He also campaigned on keeping slots at the tracks. I think that should be done this year as well."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he agreed with O'Malley's figure but noted without specifics that other projects will have to be delayed to pay for the governor-elect's proposal. "It's in the budget, so we're there," Busch said.
The Assembly dedicated about $323 million in the most recent fiscal year to capital projects including school construction.
Outgoing Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. promised last summer that if re-elected he would commit $250 million annually over a five-year period, a figure in line with the quarter-million dollars a year recommended by an education funding commission headed by state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp.
Abbruzzese said O'Malley is recommending $400 million for his first-year budget and $250 million annually in each successive year.
Under state law, O'Malley must introduce his budget plan Friday, two days after he is sworn in. The school construction pledge, a frequent campaign trail refrain, marks the second such promise in recent days. Last week, he promised full funding for environmental land purchases.
Those attending the St. John's meeting were hopeful that O'Malley and Brown will make education - specifically funding for construction and a re-evaluation of state testing standards - a primary focus.
The event was originally scheduled for today, but the funeral of a Baltimore policeman required that it be held on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Attendees appeared to be most engaged talking about the Maryland High School Assessments, exams administered at the end of courses in biology, English and other subjects. Several expressed concern that learning is compromised because teachers are forced to teach to the test.
"I think that we're losing in our classrooms the ability to discuss, to share ideas and opinions," David DeMatthews, an American government teacher at Edmondson-Westside High School in Baltimore, told O'Malley.
O'Malley, who was casual enough to call several speakers "man" and at one point "beatboxed" (the hip-hop art of using one's voice to make drumbeats and other percussive noises) as a student recited his after-school club's mission, promised new leadership at the Maryland State Department of Education. He also vowed to review state testing requirements.
"We will be taking another look at this and trying to get that balance right," O'Malley said.
Frederick Ramsey, a junior at Dunbar High School in Baltimore, said he was grateful for the opportunity to see the governor-elect in person and that he looks forward to learning more specifics about O'Malley's plans.
"He answered some [questions] very well, some he didn't," Ramsey said. "They'll all have to be addressed."