"Big 3" counties ask state help building schools

Baltimore, Montgomery, Prince George's cite growing enrollments, aging buildings

January 14, 2014|Tim Wheeler and Michael Dresser

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz joined his counterparts from Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Annapolis Tuesday to appeal for more state funding for school construction, saying they need help coping with rising enrollments.

Speaking for all three, Kamenetz warned that whatever success Maryland has had in providing quality education to the state's students is in jeopardy unless the state's most populous counties can expand and upgrade their aging, crowded schools.

"Our success is crucial to the success of public schools in this state," said Kamenetz, with Montgomery's Isiah Leggett and Prince George's Rushern Baker standing beside him.

Together, the "Big 3" counties account for 44 percent of Maryland's public school enrollment and nearly half of its poor students, Kamenetz said,  And they're projecting to gain more than 22,000 more students combined in the next seven years.

All three executives said their counties have devoted considerable local funds to building and renovating schools.  Kamenetz said Baltimore County has set out to build 10 new schools and renovated six others at a cost of $600 million. Two-thirds of the funding came from the county and a third from the state.

More than 80 percent of the county's schools are more than 40 years old, he noted, and enrollment in the next seven years is projected to grow by nearly 10 percent, to nearly 113,000 students.

None of the three executives would say how much additional state funding they wanted, or under what terms, saying they wanted to work that out with the O'Malley administration and with legislative leaders.  Kamenetz contended that the counties' financial needs would be even greater if lawmakers approve mandatory pre-kindergarten schooling this year.

The county executives face two formidable skeptics in House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Busch said in a pre-session interview that he views Baltimore’s need for new school facilities as being unique in Maryland.

Miller, in an interview Tuesday, said he doesn’t see the county executives’ request as reasonable.

“They’ve just to be told the cold, hard facts of life,” Miller said.

The Senate president suggested that if the counties want to step up the pace of school construction, they must be willing to tax their citizens more.

He said that if Montgomery County raised its property tax to the level paid by Baltimore residents, it could generate another $2 billion for school construction. Prince George’s, which operates under a property tax cap, could raise another $750 million a year if its tax rate were the same as the city’s. Miller said.

“I’d suggest they’re going to have to look inward for any major relief,” Miller said.

Baltimore city's property tax rate of  $2.248 per $100 of assessed valuation is by far the state’s highest.  Baltimore County’s rate Is $1.10, while Prince George’s stands at 96 cents and  Montgomery at 75.9 cents. Many Montgomery and Prince George’s residents live in municipalities that add to the property tax burden.

But Leggett said Miller was overlooking other taxes and fees Montgomery County residents pay, including an energy tax, which the executive said helped support the school budget.

"They have been taxed up to the hilt," Leggett said.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat,  said his homes jurisdiction is willing to put up additional money in order to float bonds to jump-start school construction to cope with burgeoning  growth.

“This is a crisis situation in Montgomery County and we are willing to put our money in, but we also need to have state dollars involved in the process,” he said.

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