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Md. school construction panel target of reformers

01.07.14 Towson, MD- From Left, Kevin Dawyot, wine representative, is shown here helping Randalstown resident Dave Nolley with with a wine purchase Total Wine in on Loch Raven Boulevard near Towson. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

A special panel is examining how school construction — such as the work done on the Henderson Hopkins School in east Baltimore — is approved and overseen in Maryland.  (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

ANNAPOLIS — The state’s current system for approving school construction spending needs an overhaul, according to members of a commission tasked with developing recommendations to improve school construction.

“If you plateau, you’re dead,” said 21st Century Schools Commission Chairman Martin Knott. “And I think that what certainly I am seeing and what members of the commission are seeing is that there’s a real opportunity for us to improve the organization.”

Gov. Marvin Mandel established the state school construction aid program in 1971, the same year Knott was born.

“It has evolved over time,” Knott said. “I don’t think we look often enough at the IAC (Interagency Commission on School Construction) and ways to improve it, make it more transparent, give it a little bit more gusto and potential funding for it to achieve its goals.”

The IAC is conducting a search for a new executive director after the departure of David Lever following a decision by the state Board of Public Works to withhold $15 million in school construction money from Baltimore City and Baltimore County over a lack of air conditioned classrooms. The board vote was driven by two of the panel’s three members, Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot.

Knott told the members of the 21st Century Schools Commission he leads that prospective candidates need to be aware of possible changes to the organization they could be hired to run.

“I am quite certain that there will be changes,” Knott said. “I think that we should put the IAC on notice that we are going to be taking a hard look at that organization and the structure of that organization and how it runs and they may want to inform the potential candidates that organization is subject to change. I don’t think it’s going to be anything negative. I think it’s going to be an improvement.”

The Interagency Commission on School Construction is housed in the Maryland Department of Education but answers to the Board of Public Works — a relationship that some say has become more politicized in the last two years.

“During my eight years it was kind of boring,” said Rich Hall, a former planning secretary under Gov. Martin O’Malley. “When government is doing it’s job well, it’s boring.”

As planning secretary, Hall also served as a voting member on the school construction commission. Hall said disputes over issues such as air conditioning in schools have created a cause for concern.

“Sitting back and watching the whole air conditioning conflict was particularly painful for me,” Hall said, adding that regardless of any changes the commission recommends for the school construction panel he would like to see the professional staff remain intact.

“I’m not here to suggest some new organizational model for IAC,” Hall said. “I guess that is something you’ll be wrestling with.”

The 28-member commission that is led by Knott was established by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. The group is charged with making recommendations on how the state can better manage the billions of dollars in school construction and renovation needs statewide.

Part of that focus includes finding new ways to increase the number of projects that can be paid for with limited financial resources.

Barbara Hoffman, a member of the school construction commission as well as the legislative panel, said she would like to see changes to the process that incentivize school systems to incorporate more affordable designs and materials.

“The school systems can already do a lot of this but they’re not doing it,” Hoffman said. “Part of what happens is if you’ve always done something a certain way you tend to always do them a certain way.”

Hoffman said it might come down to giving the Interagency Committee on School Construction more flexibility and the ability to provide financial incentives on future projects.

“Right now, the IAC is truly one size fits all in terms of processes,” said Hoffman. “I really don’t think one size fits all.”