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Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot. (File)

Hogan, Franchot vow to ignore legislative edict on school construction

Gov. Larry Hogan. (File)

Gov. Larry Hogan. (File)

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s Republican governor and Democratic comptroller vowed to continue to call school officials to account for how construction and renovation funding is spent and promised to increase their efforts despite a legislative edict meant to diminish their roles.

The tough talk from the state comptroller and the governor comes just a day after Gov. Larry Hogan announced he would allow his capital budget to become law without his signature — the result of the House and Senate adding language that seeks to shield school superintendents and other officials from questions at the annual school construction and renovation appeals event that has come to be known as Beg-a-thon.

But Comptroller Peter Franchot said the legislative edict will have the opposite effect.

“I promise you this is going to bring more transparency, more accountability, more scrutiny,” Franchot said.

“It will probably be held a lot earlier and have a lot more bite to it,” Franchot said. “Doesn’t the governor propose to the legislature how much is going to be spent on school construction? Did I miss that somewhere?”

The General Assembly added language to the capital budget that effectively eliminates the nearly four-decades old tradition that has come to be known as Beg-a-thon — a process in which officials from the 24 school districts travel to Annapolis to appear before the Board of Public Works to appeal for construction and renovation project funding approvals by the Interagency Commission on School Construction.

Each year the state spends hundreds of millions of dollars on school construction and renovation statewide.

Franchot said he believes the board — particularly he and Hogan — will still be able to call for school officials to appear before them as they seek board approval for projects. But what about those who opt not to appear, believing the legislature has given them an out?

“Hey, at your peril,” Franchot said, adding that the board could delay funding on projects to reinforce the importance of coming to Annapolis when asked. “Let’s see now, arithmetically, they’ve managed to alienate two of the three votes on the Board of Public Works. They are extraordinarily dependent on the Board of Public Works … It’s just all through the budget.”

The first test could come May 11, when the board makes final appeals decisions for the fiscal 2017 budget.

Hogan, speaking on the issue during Wednesday’s board meeting, praised lawmakers for their work on the capital budget and for limiting spending to under $1 billion as he requested. He said his decision, announced a day earlier, to not sign his own spending plan was driven by the amendment to end the appeals process before the three-member board that also includes the state treasurer.

The nature of that appeals process has changed over the years. Former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley repeatedly tried to re-brand the event “Hope-a-thon.”

The appearances have also turned into an annual opportunity for the board — the comptroller and in the last two years also the governor — to question and sometimes grill school superintendents on issues such as school maintenance, lack of air conditioning and other issues.

One particularly difficult exchange came in January, when Franchot and Hogan took turns demanding answers from Howard County Public Schools Superintendent Renee Foose over parents’ concerns that they were not properly notified about mold growth in some schools with roof maintenance issues.

The association that represents school superintendents in Maryland wrote House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. asking for the legislature to protect them.

Theresa R. Alban, president of the Public Schools Superintendent Association of Maryland and superintendent of the Frederick County Public Schools, wrote that “our experience has been that the members of the BPW often do not question the construction projects but use the time as a forum to advance political agendas such as financial literacy, declining enrollment, communications to parents, post-Labor Day starts, charter school approvals and other instructional and operational issues.”

Alban singled out Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp as the only member of the board “who actually asks appropriate questions.”

Narrative language in the operating and capital budgets is not an uncommon tool for the legislature to deliver messages to the governor on public policy or even to require particular actions.

“There’s always been narrative in both the operating and capital budgets,” said Busch in an interview. “Maybe not to the extent that you saw on that particular issue, but there’s always been narrative on particular issues.”

Busch defended the practice and its use with the board as appropriate, and he called the entire issue “a good philosophical debate.”