As the state Board of Public Works approved $264 million for school construction Wednesday, two counties asked to delay new buildings because they aren't certain they can come up with the money to finish or operate them — an unprecedented sign, officials said, of the continuing financial challenges confronting local governments.
"We've never dealt with anything like this before, where we've come to this sort of crisis point," David G. Lever, director of the state's Public School Construction Program, said of the requests by Charles and Wicomico counties. "It's a real bellwether of the economy."
State Comptroller Peter Franchot said such "uncharted waters" should be a "blinking red light" for state officials. Franchot sits on the three-member Board of Public Works with Gov. Martin O'Malley and Treasurer Nancy Kopp.
"This could just be the tip of the iceberg," he said, questioning whether other counties also might struggle to support new or enlarged schools given the toll the economy has taken on local property and income tax revenues. "In these tough times, perhaps we should reassess these shiny new schools that we're building."
Lever said this year's school construction package revealed more signs of continuing financial hardship in the counties.
Local officials asked for less money and had fewer projects planned than at any time in at least five years — probably, he said, because local governments can't afford to put up their portion of the construction costs.
The state's 23 counties and Baltimore asked for $612 million in state help for building schools — down from a peak of $894 million in fiscal year 2008.
In addition to the two major building delays, several counties waved off state support next year for smaller school projects, such as mechanical upgrades, because they can't pitch with their share.
Charles County officials have asked the state for another 120 days to decide whether they can accept $6.8 million in state money to build what was to be a huge, state-of-the-art high school in Waldorf. The county commissioners aren't sure if they will have the tax base to operate the planned St. Charles High School, a project in which the state has already invested $3.5 million and the county $8 million.
A new middle school in Wicomico County, which had been set to receive $5.2 million in state money Wednesday, is also on hold. The County Council voted in March to delay construction on the new Bennett Middle School in Fruitland for a year. With the county's capital money off the table, Wicomico officials withdrew their request for state funds.
School construction has been a signature issue for O'Malley, a Democrat who trumpeted his commitment to education during his campaign last year against Republican former Gov. Robert. L. Ehrlich Jr.
Even in tough economic times, he was fond of saying during the campaign, he spent $1.3 billion on school construction in his first four-year term.
In 2004, a state commission concluded that school building needs were at a crisis level. O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the administration has worked diligently to address that problem.
"Clearly there's a critical need for school construction in every jurisdiction," Abbruzzese said. While fiscal concerns have led two counties to delay major projects, "I don't think that shows a fatal flaw in the process," he said. "We're coming out of a pretty bad recession."
Dozens of major school renovation and construction projects are still on track. The state generates money for school construction by borrowing on Wall Street.
Baltimore and Baltimore County received $32 million each for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
In Baltimore, a chunk of the money will be used to complete Waverly Elementary/Middle School — the first new school to be built in the city since 1998. Baltimore County will spend much of the money on a major expansion of Hampton Elementary School.
Howard County is to receive $23.4 million and Anne Arundel $29.2 million.
Todd Eberly, the coordinator of public policy studies at St. Mary's College, said the holdups in Charles and Wicomico counties are symptomatic of the financial struggles faced by many local governments across the state, and the complex mix of funding sources for education.
"There are always challenges with what to do about the counties that are more cash-strapped," he said.
The new schools in Charles and Wicomico are each expected to cost about $70 million to build. Officials in the two counties say they want to resume construction at some point and are scrambling to find money.
Candice Quinn Kelly, president of the Charles County Board of Commissioners, appeared before the Board of Public Works on Wednesday to assure members that the money the state had already invested wouldn't go to waste.
"We're committed to this school," Kelly said. When it is finally built, she said, "it will make you proud."