Schools still need repair

Our view : While progress has been made, Maryland's aging schools require investment

January 19, 2009

When Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. suggested recently that Maryland ought to spend $325 million on public school construction next year, quite a few people in Annapolis scoffed. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller opined that the state had been "overly generous" with such funding in the past, and aides to Gov. Martin O'Malley expressed doubts that Mr. Smith's recommended number could possibly be met.

How quickly they forget. While it's true that the last three years have brought a record investment in schools, not only to build new ones but to repair or replace aging structures, far more is needed. And despite the recession, such a program doesn't necessarily require the state to spend more, but only to make schools a higher priority in the state's capital budget.

Five years ago, a task force headed by Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp found Maryland school systems had at least $3.85 billion in construction needs. From failing heating systems, leaky roofs and overcrowded classrooms to the presence of asbestos and unsafe drinking water, the conditions are an embarrassment to a state that prides itself on the quality of its K-12 education.

Not only has state government failed to keep up a 38-year-old commitment to meet local school construction needs but lawmakers have even set some policies that have, at least indirectly, worsened them. The state mandate for full-day kindergarten, for instance, has increased the demand for classroom space beyond what some elementary schools can provide. And that's resulted in a proliferation of portable classrooms. Today, more than 3,000 of these unsightly trailers are stuck behind crowded schools like so many federally housed hurricane refugees. The message they send to students is unmistakable: Kids, you just aren't valued enough to justify a real building.

When he campaigned for office, Mr. O'Malley promised to spend at least $250 million annually on school construction. In a year when schools are seeking more than three times as much, that minimum amount isn't good enough, not if Maryland wants to maintain its reputation for top-flight public schools, a branding that is essential to the state's economic future.

So while Baltimore County may not be in the best position to point fingers - just ask county teachers, who went without cost-of-living adjustments to their salaries this year - Mr. Smith is essentially correct. The capital budget the governor is expected to announce in a matter of days ought to include at least $300 million for school construction. Even in the worst of times, students deserve to be educated in decent facilities.

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