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Construction needs, post-Labor Day start among education issues awaiting lawmakers

Red Apple

A report expected later this month on improving school construction will not be delivered on time but already some members are expressing concerns.

Members of the General Assembly are expected to return next month without a report from the 21st Century Schools Commission. But a fracture has developed on the panel, and Republican members have claimed the legislative group is focused solely on nibbling away another area of power wielded by the governor’s office because a Republican lives in the mansion on State Circle.

The commission, established earlier this year by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., was tasked with reviewing school construction policies and recommending changes to create more efficient and effective school construction practices.

But accusations that the commission is political have dogged the panel almost since it was created.

Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter V.R Franchot have used their positions on the Board of Public Works as a bully pulpit, challenging school superintendents in Howard and Baltimore counties on school maintenance issues. They’ve also withheld funding from Baltimore city and county over a dispute involving the number of classrooms without air conditioning.

Superintendents complained to Busch and Miller about their treatment. In response, language was quietly, and without public discussion, added to the budget eliminating the Board of Public Works’ annual appeal of school construction funding commonly called “Beg-a-thon.”

Sen. Andrew Serafini, R-Washington, began his work on the commission optimistic that the goal was not overtly political. But last month, he and other Republican members voiced strong concerns about the commission’s ongoing focus on the Interagency Committee on School Construction, also known as the IAC, which the Board of Public Works oversees.

“I guess I’ve become a little jaded,” Serafini said. “I’m concerned that the politics is going to taint the work and people will see this as a strawman. I know there’s a lot of politics involved but I’m really hopeful we can set that aside and dig into the policy.”

The commission’s report was due at the end of the year but has been delayed by health challenges faced by its chair, Martin Knott. The last two meetings this month were cancelled. Additionally, several members said more time was needed to allow commissioners to submit proposed recommendations. So far, it is estimated that about one-third of the commissioners have completed and submitted a confidential questionnaire seeking proposals for changes, according to members of the commission.

Knott was not immediately available to comment for this story.

Not legislation

Former state senator Barbara Hoffman, a member of the school construction panel, said she was not sure if the commission’s concerns were valid but that she did not have any concerns.

“I’m focused, as a member of the (school construction committee) on what could we suggest to the legislature and it not about (the committee), it’s about the rules governing the school construction process,” Hoffman said. “We do not have a runaway IAC.”

Hoffman said the commission’s final product will be a report, not legislation.

“We’re just giving ideas,” said Hoffman. “It will be up to the legislature to come up with legislation and figure it out.”

The commission is expected to meet on Jan. 13, two days after session starts.

Hoffman said there plenty of time for the legislature to work on some of the issues and said there are many the commission can agree on.

“I think most commissioners would agree that school construction is not one-size-fits-all,” Hoffman said, adding that she favors a streamlined set of rules that would allow larger counties with experience in building schools to move forward with fewer hurdles at the state level.

“I think we have to build in some kind of differentiation,” Hoffman added. “Smaller counties who build fewer schools would get more help. You’d still have oversight. We’re never going to give any jurisdiction carte blanche.”

The former senator, who chaired the Budget and Taxation Committee, said she would also like lawmakers to re-examine the formula governing how much each county has to contribute to its school projects because smaller, poorer counties may not be able to reach their requirements.

More efficiency

Additionally, Hoffman called for panel similar to the Kopp Commission to re-examine the cost of school construction needs in the state. The state spent more than $1 billion over the last decade based on recommendations made by the panel, chaired by Treasurer Nancy Kopp.

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 former executive director of the IAC.

“There’s never going to be enough money,” Hoffman said. “We have to come up with ways to make the process, faster, more efficient and do more with the money we have available.”

Del. Aruna Miller, D-Montgomery and a member of the commission, said she favored an idea that might allow jurisdictions to combine middle school and elementary school buildings into one complex rather than separate schools for each.

“I think it can be successfully done and will be beneficial to kids of all ages and makes a better learning environment for all kids,” Miller said.

Serafini would like to see smaller schools in renovated spaces focusing on work force and other specialized interest including science and technology.

“We’ve got to be innovative,” Serafini said. “We’ve got to talk about doing things differently.

But Serafini said he’s concerned that none of the previous meetings has set the committee up to make those kinds of recommendations.

“I really believe Chairman Knott is energized by the commission,” Serafini said. “But these things have never been discussed. I’m not sure that’s the concern of the commission. I think we need more time and hopefully a different focus.”

Other educational issues include:

  • The return of legislators to Annapolis will give the General Assembly its first shot at considering legislation aimed at overturning Hogan’s executive order mandating schools start after Labor Day and end by June 15. An advisory letter from the attorney general’s office suggested Hogan overstepped his authority, and school systems who have set their calendars so far have taken different approaches either accepting the order or ignoring it. And while some lawmakers have hinted at possible legislation, political analysts say the issue, which has public support according to polls, might be one they want to avoid.
  • Lawmakers are expected to take up a recommendation that the state move the ailing Baltimore City Community College into the University System of Maryland. Authors of a review on the issue say the move would give the two-year institution more visibility and focus after years of foundering under city and now state control. Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore City, said she was keeping an open mind on the recommendation and open to changes. Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore, has been scathing in her criticism of the USM and opposes the idea of joining the community college with the larger state system.
  • The House and Senate are expected to take up a bill that would provide $20 million in state aid to offset deficits in teacher pension systems in all 24 local jurisdictions. The bill was part of a compromise in which legislators approved a $20 million state incentive package for Northrup Grumman.
  • Hogan describes newly minted Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh as a friend but that relationship could be tested as the city is likely to seek additional money to help offset a $129 million shortfall in the current budget year for the Baltimore City Public Schools.
  • Related to school funding for Baltimore, McIntosh, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, is expected work on legislation meant to ease the effects of an education formula that has decreased funding to the city schools system. The decrease comes as a result of the city entering into more tax incentive agreements for redevelopment. Those agreements result in a lower property tax base that drives down the formula-funded spending.

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