ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Larry Hogan Wednesday said he will ignore a legislative prohibition that seeks to end a requirement that school system leaders appear before the Board of Public Works in an annual event known as “Beg-a-thon.”
Hogan ordered the secretary of the Board of Public Works to inform officials at all of Maryland’s public school systems that they are required to attend its Jan. 25 meeting, where the board will consider recommendations on more than $200 million proposed for school construction and maintenance projects.
The governor called an amendment quietly added to the state budget last year that eliminated that practice “misguided partisan shenanigans” and “crazy language.” He said the provision is not enforceable and that he intends to continue the traditional meeting in which school leaders appeal to the board for additional school construction and renovation funding.
“Final approval for the school construction funds rests solely with this Board of Public Works, and anyone who thinks they can somehow just take away that authority on a whim is gravely mistaken,” Hogan said.
“This board obviously has the authority to ask questions of and request any additional information from any potential recipient of state funds,” Hogan said. “This board is not going to be a rubber stamp of approval, and we’re certainly not going to cede our authority to an unelected, part-time committee made up of former legislators and lobbyists who are accountable to no one.”
“We’re going to have the school systems that are looking for money come before us at our next meeting or they won’t be getting money,” Hogan said.
Hogan said school systems will come to the board at the end of the month “or else they won’t be getting any money.”
Hogan said a lawyer for the three-person Board of Public Works has told him the legislature cannot prevent the panel from calling school officials before them as it considers annual funding requests.
In a seven-page memo obtained by The Daily Record, Dori Jaffe, general counsel to the board, wrote that the language the legislature inserted into the budget didn’t prohibit the board from calling school systems before it.
Instead, Jaffe said, the budget amendment “eliminates the ability of the local education agencies to ‘appeal’ the Interagency Committee on School Construction’s recommendations. There is no explicit indication that the Legislature intended to remove the Board’s authority to approve the Capital Improvement Program.”
The meeting, which has been referred to as the Beg-a-thon, is really a chance for school systems around the state to formally appeal recommendations made by the Interagency Committee on School Construction to the board.
The General Assembly in 2006 did act to eliminate the authority of the board, led then by Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich, from approving the recommendations of the interagency committee.
“In stark contrast to the unclear 2016 amendment at issue here, a decade ago the General Assembly did abrogate the Board’s authority to approve the school construction program by amending the final 2006 (capital budget), clearly itemizing that year’s specific allocations and stating that the itemized allocations ‘shall not be subject to approval by the Board of Public Works,'” Jaffe wrote.
Jaffe writes that the board can still call school systems before it to provide information.
Hogan’s request was supported by fellow board member Comptroller Peter Franchot, who called the efforts to end the annual meeting an attempt to thwart transparency and public accountability a “hatchet job in the backrooms of the conference committee.”
“Let’s be honest and call it what it is, it’s a power play and people don’t want this board looking at school construction,” Franchot said.
But Treasurer Nancy Kopp, the third member of the board, called Hogan’s move “bullying” and a “political hammer to hit particular subjects.”
“I think the problem is that in the last year or two, what had been a set of useful and very informative hearings had turned into a political barrage of basically of bullying and not one of inquiry,” Kopp said, adding that she does not have a problem with school officials coming to Annapolis to discuss issues with the board.
“I do think directing them, ordering them to do it is a bullying tactic,” Kopp said. “It’s unfortunate.”
“I think that we can all work together to build great schools and the great educational programs that we all want,” Kopp said. “But to do that through a vehicle of bullying and banging on people is truly not only unnecessary but politically quite destructive.”
The legislature last year, in response to complaints from some school superintendents, inserted language that was meant to end the appeals meeting, which has been called Beg-a-thon, and, for a time under Gov. Martin O’Malley, Hope-a-thon. Typically legislators, local officials and school system leaders all appear before the board to advocate for additional funds for school construction and renovation.
The legislature inserted the language during a conference committee meeting near the end of the 90-day session. It is not known who drafted or sponsored the amendment.
“I think if you look at the language, that was the intent given the fact that the projects would be vetted by the experts who know better,” said Del. Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County and chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the capital budget. “He’s still the governor and the Board of Public Works can do that but it was the intent.”
Jones, who is also a member of the 21st Century School Facilities Commission, said that group is also considering making changes to the way the Interagency Committee on School Construction works, including its role within the Board of Public Works.
“I’m just one person, but we’re reviewing it as one of the areas to change but it’s not decided yet,” Jones said.
Hogan and Franchot have used the meeting to grill school officials on issues related to school upkeep and mold remediation. Some of the questioning at times became quite heated — exchanges that had not previously been part of the annual events.
“What you would call bullying, we would call fiscal responsibility and accountability, which is what we were elected to do,” Hogan said, speaking of the hundreds of millions the state spends each year on local school construction and maintenance.