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Concerns about school building ranking delays funding proposals

ANNAPOLIS — A panel of lawmakers and school system officials delayed approval of two proposals that are expected to lead to a statewide review of school buildings and possibly change how state school construction money is allocated.

The nine-member Work Group on Assessment and Funding of School facilities delayed initial actions amid continued concerns about how a ranking of more than 1,400 schools across Maryland might be used and how it could affect local school system priorities.

“We all care about our kids,” Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon said. “We’re trying to figure out a way to go.”

The panel, led by Salmon, is charged with establishing a new method of determining need for state school construction dollars. The legislature is expected to consider a plan in 2020 that could allocate $2 billion to replace and renovate schools across the state.

Salmon had hoped the panel would be able to come to a consensus about the underlying criteria for a facilities grading system and how it would be used to improve school buildings.

“We have admired the problem a whole lot,” Salmon told the group. “Now we have to come up with a solution.”

The discussion over the details of the initial proposals was far from finished.

The panel is debating a proposal that would impose a new ranking system that would grade schools based on the age, life expectancy and current condition of school buildings. Increased emphasis would be placed on buildings that have deteriorating roofs, failing heat or air conditioning systems or other health and safety concerns. The formula also would attempt to funnel money to improving or replacing schools that are no longer educationally sufficient because of size or outdated design.

State assessment teams would review and grade every school, creating a master list  that would guide the Interagency Commission on Public School Construction when it comes to doling out hundreds of millions in state aid for school construction and renovation. The proposed system is loosely based on one used in New Mexico that was overseen by Robert Gorrell, the current director of Maryland’s Interagency Commission on Public School Construction.

Currently, the commission relies on a decades-old system that hands out aid to the state’s 24 largest political subdivisions in part based on a per-pupil calculation.  The largest of the state’s jurisdictions, which have projects every year, tend to get the lion’s share of the funding, with smaller counties, which have projects less regularly, sharing the rest.

A proposed pilot program, which has yet to be finalized, could set aside $50 million to $60 million that would be used to address schools with the highest needs in the state.

The pilot program would keep in place, at least for a time, the system in which local jurisdictions are able to set their own priorities and seek approval for state aid from the commission.

Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith, D-Prince George’s, said she might favor a hybrid approach in which “each jurisdiction is getting some of the limited amount of money.”

Lawmakers on the panel continue to wrestle with concerns both pragmatic and politically parochial.

Sen. Doug Peters, D-Prince George’s, worried that funding priorities solely on a ranking system would discourage some local school systems.

“Some counties are going to be all the way at the bottom and they are going to disengage with the process,” Peters said.

Some on the panel, including Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner, are concerned the new grading system could reward school systems that let their buildings fall into disrepair.

Gorrell, director of the state school construction commission, said incentives could be added that provide bonus state money to jurisdictions that maintain their facilities.

Regional politics are also proving to be an issue, as jurisdictions jockey to protect or improve the amount of funding that could flow to them.

Del. Marc Korman, D-Montgomery, continued to express concerns that the new system would limit available funding for larger, wealthier counties for years as commission officials funnel money into jurisdictions that are poor or have aging and decrepit school buildings.

Baltimore city, which has some of the oldest schools still in use in the state, could be atop the list once the surveys and grading are complete. Last month, Korman used the city as an example of a jurisdiction that could take all the state aid in a given year.



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