School funding assailed

System officials deride budget for insufficient construction money

June 08, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,SUN REPORTER

A cramped Crofton Elementary School has 11 portables parked outside, with two more coming this fall. West Meade Elementary has six, a number that will swell to 12 in four years as Fort Meade expands. Enrollment at Pershing Hill Elementary, also on the Army post, will double by then.

The schools are among two dozen that need major expansions or updating, but district officials are accusing Anne Arundel County leaders of stalling them indefinitely by slashing the projects' funding - hurting the district's ability to compete for state school construction money.

"At best, we're at a severe disadvantage. At worst, we're out of the running completely," Alex Szachnowicz, the district's acting facilities director, told the school board Wednesday.

It was the latest salvo from school administrators, who blame the County Council and County Executive John R. Leopold for creating a dire situation with their $866 million education budget, an 8 percent boost over last year, yet far less than the 17 percent increase that was sought.

Last week, school district officials warned that they'll have to scrimp on utility costs, making classrooms colder in the winter and hotter in the summer; charge new fees for extracurricular clubs and sports; and increase the prices of tickets to sporting events.

Board members Wednesday said Leopold had overstepped his authority on school budget matters - Vice President Eugene Peterson called him "King John" - and asked for a legal opinion on how much of a role he is allowed to play.

County officials, however, noted yesterday that the percentage of the budget devoted toward schools - 49.9 percent - is the highest in the 42 years of charter government. Chief Administrative Officer Dennis Callahan, the county's No. 2 official, pointed out that the council voted unanimously in support of the budget.

"This isn't the county executive versus the superintendent," Callahan said.

After school officials decried Leopold's budget for falling $72 million short of what they had sought, the executive and the County Council restored $2.2 million and established a $2.5 million fund from which schools could draw for capital projects after getting the council's approval.

Those two conciliatory gestures don't go far enough, school officials said, because the fund won't cover planning for most of the 24 schools that need extensive work, and the money that the council put back isn't sufficient. School administrators bemoaned a line of zeroes they saw in the funding for projects beyond fiscal year 2010, derailing plans to chip away at a $1.5 billion maintenance backlog. The county set aside $153,000 for a study to determine whether West Meade needs to be rebuilt or renovated, but it delayed construction money, making it impossible for the school to open by fall of 2010, at the peak of the influx of families brought to the Army post by the base realignment and closure process.

Szachnowicz added that without a long-term financial pledge from the county, the state agency that recommends funding for public school construction won't likely pony up the money, either.

"The state has 23 other districts to think about. If they don't see a commitment is there from the local government, the state is going to turn to districts where the local dollars are in place. They want to give state money to districts that are ready, willing and able to use the state money immediately," he said.

The concerns led Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell to write a letter to state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, saying, "We have grave reservations about the predictability and structure of our out-year CIP [Capital Improvement Projects] requests."

An official with the state's public school construction program said he sees why Maxwell is worried but said the state isn't planning to intervene on the district's behalf. "It's not really a crisis for us, and not really a crisis for them, yet," said David Lever, executive director of the state's public school construction program. "They're fine until [July 1, 2008], but it's looking out into 2010 that they're worried [about]."

The school board plans to vote on its budget June 20.ruma.kumar@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Phillip McGowan contributed to this article.

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