May 2, 2016

The Daily Record: Panel considers sweeping changes to Md. school construction

By Bryan Sears

A $3 billion gap in state funding needed to satisfy growing statewide school construction needs could lead to a wholesale changes in how Maryland funds and builds the projects.

Requests from the state’s 23 counties and Baltimore city are expected to approach $4.5 billion through fiscal 2022 but anticipated funding only will approach about one-third of that, according to David G. Lever, the executive director of the Interagency Commission on School Construction.

“The problems are quite different across the state and yet we can say that every jurisdiction in one way or another is facing major capital requirements,” Lever said Thursday while speaking to the 21st Century School Facilities Commission.

The 28-member commission, established by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., met for the first time in an effort to make recommendations on how the state can better address the billions of dollars in school construction and renovation needs statewide. Those recommendations could result in the most wide-sweeping overhaul of how Maryland pays for construction and renovation since former Gov. Marvin Mandel established the state school construction program in the early 1970s.

The panel is expected to deliver a report and recommendations by December — just in time for those recommendations to be drafted into legislation for the 2017 General Assembly session.

The state now spends about one-third of the annual capital budget on school construction and renovation, an amount that has topped $2.5 billion over the last decade. Additionally, the state created a first-of-its-kind program that will funnel $1 billion from the Maryland Stadium Authority into building new schools in Baltimore city.

“We still seem to be falling behind in the counties in the area of school construction,” Busch said. “Schools are important. They drive the whole system of the state,”

Maryland is one of only five states in the nation that provides substantial aid to local jurisdictions to build schools. In 45 other states, school construction is the sole purview of local governments, with property taxes often used to pay for new and renovated facilities. In Maryland, the 24 local governments are asked to provide matching shares.

Wealthier jurisdictions, including Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Montgomery counties contribute 50 percent or more to the costs. Poorer subdivisions kick in substantially less, with Somerset County being the only local government to qualify for 100 percent state aid for eligible school construction and renovation costs.

Twelve years ago, a commission chaired by Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp recommended that the state provide $2 billion of funding for projections over eight years, and the state has continued to provide $250 million annually beyond the Kopp report’s initial recommendations.

Under scrutiny

The work of the commission comes at the same time that school construction is becoming an issue for Gov. Larry Hogan. In January, Hogan criticized Lever for failing to meet deadlines on promised reports on construction and maintenance reports and accused Lever of being resistant to finding new ways of dealing with the widening gap between needed projects and funding.

“We have a substantial backlog,” Hogan said at the time. “We’ve poured hundreds of millions of dollars in. We just want to build more schools, faster and for less money. That’s the bottom line.”

Miller compared the panel, which is largely made up of private sector leaders, to the Augustine Commission he and Busch appointed in 2014 to make recommendations on improving the business climate in Maryland.

“You’re work will not be in vain, I promise you,” Miller told the commission, adding that they are charged with looking at better ways of building and maintaining schools, innovative financing, including possible public-private partnerships, and examining the role of state government agencies in the process.

Miller highlighted the role of the Board of Public Works member and Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot and his interest in air conditioning in school systems with older facilities, calling it “that kind of nonsense.”

Miller also asked the panel to examine the appropriateness of having school officials come to Annapolis to appeal to the board, which is run by the governor, in so-called “Beg-a-thons.”

Originally published on The Daily Record. Available online here.