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Republicans worry Md. school construction commission too political

Sen. Andrew Serafini, left, speaking as  Del. Jefferson Ghrist looks on. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Sen. Andrew Serafini, left, speaking as Del. Jefferson Ghrist looks on. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

ANNAPOLIS — A legislative commission charged with improving the school construction process in Maryland is too political and too focused on appointments made by Gov. Larry Hogan, according to the panel’s two Republican legislators.

Sen. Andrew Serafini and Del. Jeff Ghrist raised concerns about Chairman Martin Knott’s visitations of schools and communications with legislative leaders, including extending the term of the commission from one to two years, without the knowledge of the full group. The pair also unsuccessfully proposed delaying the commission’s recommendations until the group wraps up next year.

Ghrist, a Republican from the Upper Shore, said he and others got involved with the panel in an effort to reduce overcrowding and improve school facilities and learning. Instead, Ghrist said, Knott announced last month that the group would focus on the the Interagency Commission on School Construction, its membership, and those positions appointed by the governor.

“I think we’re spending most of our time on the wrong thing,” Ghrist said. “we’re sort of scrambling for a solution to a problem we haven’t even identified exists, and I have concerns about the transparency of our process, actually.”

The 28-member 21st Century Schools Commission, 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.

The group was originally expected to work through the year and deliver final recommendations in a report before the legislature reconvenes in January. Knott sought an extension into next year for a second report.

Ghrist complained that Knott has attended meetings with local boards of education, written official letters and “unilaterally extended” the term of the commission without the knowledge or permission of the majority of the group. He said the moves come at a time when the commission is claiming to be focused on making the school construction and approval process more transparent.

“If there is a lack of transparent anything I think this is a prime example,” Ghrist said.

“I hate to squander this opportunity to(instead) go after a couple of political appointments on the IAC,” Ghrist said. “It just seems like a total waste of resources.”

Kathleen Sherrill, a member of the commission representing the American Institute of Architects, said members of her organization are very concerned about the work of the group.

“Yes the rumors are circulating in our community,” Sherrill said. “I also agree it feels political, very political, and we need to tread with caution.”

Knott defended his ex parte visits and communications as educational and said other members of the panel were welcome to join him. He added that the group’s focus on the IAC was because “it is the center of the universe for school construction in our state.”

“I think we’re learning more and more about the IAC every day,” Knott said.

“I don’t think there is anyone on this commission who thinks the IAC is perfect,” Knott said. “Is it broken? I think the answer to that question is ‘no.’ Could it be tweaked, could it be better? I think the answer to that question is ‘yes.'”

“I feel like this is the first time this whole thing has been politicized,” Knott said. “We haven’t even made one recommendation to anybody or really even talked about them. ”

Serafini, R-Washington County, said the commission is already is seen by some as a political vehicle to strip authority from the three-person Board of Public Works that is run by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and which includes as its other members Treasurer Nancy Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot, a frequent Hogan ally.

“There’s a cloud hanging over this commission before it started, we should all know that,” said Serafini. “That with the fear that this was only a way to go after the IAC or go after the Board of Public Works really because of the decisions of the comptroller and the governor. Founded or not, that was the concern.”

Serafini said dealing with changes to the school construction commission would be the most controversial move the legislative panel could undertake and could cast doubt on the legitimacy of the whole process.

A spokesman for Hogan referred a reporter to comments made last month about the legislative commission.

“What’s concerning is this commission is supposed to be focused on innovation and cost savings,” spokesman Douglass Mayer said in October. “It’s starting to appear to be a thinly veiled attempt to remove fiscal oversight.”


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