Gov. Martin O'Malley pledged Wednesday to spend an additional $1 billion in state money for school construction if re-elected, repeating a campaign promise he made and kept four years ago.
"Change doesn't happen overnight, but we see change happening here," said O'Malley, gesturing toward a construction pit where work was under way for new buildings at Annapolis' Germantown Elementary School.
O'Malley appeared at the school four years ago to promise a $250 million annual investment in building schools if elected. Over the past four years, O'Malley exceeded that amount, spending $1.3 billion on construction.
The plan would honor recommendations made by a task force that state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp convened in 2004, which said $250 million per year should be dedicated to new buildings.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. would not commit to funding school construction at that level, said Andy Barth, a spokesman for the Republican gubernatorial hopeful.
"Governor O'Malley is promising to spend money he doesn't have," Barth said. "If he does that, he'll increase the deficit."
When Ehrlich was governor, he cut school construction money to close a budget gap, but the General Assembly restored the funding.
O'Malley's $1 billion pledge was warmly received by the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland, a group that has been critical of the distribution of school construction funding.
"I was hopeful that they would do this," said Bebe Verdery, the ACLU's education director. "He perceives, and I think correctly, that school construction has been one of his signature issues."
The organization released a report last month criticizing the state for failing to equalize funding between poorer systems such as Baltimore's and wealthier areas like Montgomery County, which can afford to put in more local money.
"The state constitution says that all students should be educated in equal schools," she said. "Some districts are too poor to make that happen; it is the rule of the state to help even out the rough spots."
But state leaders say they go to great lengths to distribute funds fairly. The state picks up 97 percent of Baltimore school construction costs, while providing a far lower match to other areas, said House Speaker Michael E. Busch.
Still, gaps remain. Baltimore canceled summer school for the second day Wednesday because some facilities do not have air conditioning. Outfitting those buildings would cost about $225 million — roughly the total that O'Malley would make available for the entire state in a year. Such a project would be funded through a blend of state and local money.
Verdery hopes that O'Malley's promise to help local school districts find new sources of alternative funding will enable poorer districts close the funding gap. The governor proposes beefing up private-public partnerships in local areas.
O'Malley also wants a new policy that would allow windows and heating and cooling systems to be financed through energy service contracts, an arrangement in which the more-efficient equipment is funded through the savings realized by lower energy bills.
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