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Md. lawmakers vow to pump $2.2B more into school construction

Md. lawmakers vow to pump $2.2B more into school construction

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House Speaker Adrienne Jones, left, and incoming senate president William “Bill” Ferguson, center, listen as Senate president Thomas V. Mike Miller speaks on Wednesday. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)
House Speaker Adrienne Jones, left, and incoming Senate President William “Bill” Ferguson, center, listen as Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller speaks on Wednesday. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

FOREST HEIGHTS — Democratic lawmakers vowed Wednesday to pump $2.2 billion in additional money into school construction projects across the state.

The proposal, announced in a 66-year-old Prince George’s County elementary school that is closed to students because of structural problems, represents the latest multi-billion proposal focused on improving public school education in the state. A separate, $4 billion plan to fund an overhaul of the state education system is being billed as game-changing and unique in the country.

House Speaker Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County, said students around the state go to school in buildings that have not been renovated in decades. Her home county has some of the oldest school buildings in the state. In Baltimore County and city, students attend schools that lack proper air conditioning or heating systems or both.

“Students can’t learn if their classrooms are deteriorating,” Jones said. “We need to replace the leaks with learning.”

Democratic lawmakers held their event in Forest Heights Elementary. Many of the more than 300 neighborhood children who would normally walk to the school have been bused to a nearby school since the start of the year after structural issues in the foundation rendered the building unsafe.

The legislation, which was not released Wednesday, will be the first bill introduced in both the House and Senate in the new session, which begins in January.

Prince George’s County has a backlog of nearly $9 billion in school construction and renovation projects. The county is looking to use a public-private partnership program, a first of its kind in the nation, to complete some of the projects. County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said the additional money would speed up the ability to address other school construction needs in a county where 50% of the county’s 206 schools are over 50 years old.

“Your ZIP code too often … determines the quality of education,” Alsobrooks said. “This is what we must change.”

The Democrats’ proposed bill will be substantially similar to one passed by the House last year. Under that plan, the state would have borrowed $2.2 billion and directed it to school construction and renovation projects. The money would have been in addition to $400 million that the state borrows annually for similar projects across Maryland.

The four largest jurisdictions — Baltimore city and Baltimore, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties — would receive $400 million each. The remaining $600 million would be divided among the rest of the state. Each jurisdiction would be required to match the funding on a sliding scale ranging from about 10% for Baltimore city and 50% for Montgomery County.

The state would pay the bonds over 30 years using $125 million annually from the state’s cut of casino revenue in the Education Trust Fund. The bonds would be issued through the Maryland Stadium Authority, which currently manages $1 billion in school construction in Baltimore city.

“This actually does not squeeze out funding for any other capital project in the state,” said Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore city and chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The proposal is similar to one proposed a year ago by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

Hogan proposed to provide $1.9 billion in additional school construction funding over five years and to pay for it using the Education Trust Fund.

“While they are a year late, we are glad that General Assembly leaders are now endorsing our historic school construction plan,” Hogan said Wednesday in a statement. “Clearly, they recognize that we need to provide school systems — and most importantly, our students — with the healthy, efficient, and modern school buildings they deserve. Now that our legislators are finally making school construction a priority, I certainly look forward to working with them to get it done.”

The current and incoming presidents of the Maryland Senate both vowed that the legislature would pass both the school construction funding bill as well as funding for the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission. The commission’s $4 billion plan has been called “pie in the sky” and “half baked” by Hogan, who has criticized the commission for failing to present options to pay for the plan.

Hogan, who is holding a fundraiser to help campaign against the plan, said the Kirwan Commission recommendations will require massive tax hikes. Hogan has vowed to block any move to raise taxes.

Sen. William “Bill” Ferguson, D-Baltimore city, the likely successor to current Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., side-stepped questions about whether the legislature would require tax increases to pay for Kirwan.

“What we need to do is have a conversation about values,” Ferguson said. “It’s all about what are our choices and what do we value most.”

Miller, for his part, signaled the possibility of a cheaper Kirwan plan that would cost the state about $2.8 billion and leave an additional $1.2 bill for local governments.

“We don’t think it’s going to be $4 billion,” said Miller, who added that he believes there is a way to fund the program beyond the first three years. He said those ideas would be made public later.

“We’ve got some innovative ways to fund Kirwan,” Miller said.

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