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State commission hears proposals to streamline school construction

3a-school-construction-hampdenmf05A recommendation to streamline the school construction process in Maryland generated some of the most significant discussion Tuesday at the second-to-last meeting of the 21st Century School Facilities Commission.

Thirty recommendations were made by the commission’s two subcommittees, with more recommendations expected from those committees as they meet for a final time over the next month. The final recommendations will be made for the commission’s Dec. 14th meeting, its last.

Proposals to streamline the school construction process included merging approvals by the state and the Maryland Interagency on School Construction (IAC). The proposals also involved eliminating required approval of designs by the Department of General Services and the IAC.

Supporters of the recommendations, including Martin Knott, chairman of the commission, argued the proposals would streamline the process and add more efficiency.

“I don’t think in any way are we moving in a direction of less oversight, but more, efficient oversight,” he said. “Empowering locals to chart their own course in a way, but also making sure that we are adhering to oversight because it is… one-third of our capital budget. I think we can do a better job with that money and I think we can do a better job of oversight of that money without putting hurdles in front of the people that are trying to build spaces to educate our children.”

While eliminating required approval of designs by DGS, the proposal did allow school systems to seek voluntary guidance from the state, which could help school districts in smaller counties that do not consistently build schools.

Opponents of the plan argued it would be removing key oversight of school construction money.

“They haven’t made a strong case that we should eliminate any state oversight and give the local jurisdictions the responsibility of holding themselves accountable,” said Del. Jefferson Ghrist, R-Upper Shore. “I also think it’s very important that we hold our school systems accountable for how they spend state money.”

Prior to the meeting, Ghrist said he was concerned DGS had not presented information on how it was improving its processes to make the school construction review more efficient. After the meeting, however, he said the discussion opened the door to the agency appearing at one of the final subcommittee meetings.

The 21st Century Schools Facilities Commission was established by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and charged charged with making recommendations on how the state can better manage the billions of dollars in school construction and renovations.

Part of that focus also includes finding new ways to increase the number of projects that can be paid for with limited financial resources. Last year, Maryland put $285 million into school construction and renovation projects across the state.

Daily Record government affairs reporter Bryan Sears contributed to this report.

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