School officials from across Maryland have a name for the day they parade before the state Board of Public Works to make one final pitch for money to build schools and repair aging ones. They call it the annual "beg-a-thon."
The numbers show why supplication is necessary. Maryland public school systems requested $595 million for construction projects for fiscal 2006, following a year in which $125 million was available. A state task force has called on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to double that amount.
"There's a very small pot of money and very large demands," said state Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles). "It's just crumbs to start with."
But with the governor's latest budget estimate boosting funds for school construction to $155 million for the next fiscal year, Southern Maryland school officials are slightly more hopeful that some of their top-priority projects may come through after all. So far, $80 million has been committed statewide, and school administrators used last week's trip to Annapolis as a chance to fight for the rest.
In Charles County, several top priorities remain unfunded, officials said. The county asked for $4.7 million to start building a middle school on the Waldorf campus of the new North Point High School, which is scheduled to open this summer. If approved this year, the $32 million middle school could open in the summer of 2007.
Now that there is more money available for schools, "we might stand a chance of getting it," said Charles L. Wineland, assistant superintendent for supporting services.
The Charles County public school system also asked, but has yet to receive, approval for a $387,000 renovation of the heating and air conditioning system at the F.B. Gwynn Educational Center in La Plata, and the go-ahead to plan for a new elementary school.
As with Calvert and St. Mary's counties, the rapid population growth in Charles makes accommodating the burgeoning number of students the biggest challenge for school officials. Charles has added 1,400 students over the last two years. Children now attend classes in 172 portable trailers. Nearly three-quarters of the county's school buildings have more students than the capacity designated by the state.
"I don't think we'll ever be able to open a school where it won't immediately be at capacity," Wineland said. "The backlog is so tremendous. I don't know how you ever catch up."
One approach, still in its infancy in Charles, is to have private developers pay for new schools in exchange for permission to move forward with their building projects. Last year, Charles passed a law allowing such agreements, and county officials already have been approached by several developers willing to pay millions for schools.
"This is a very exciting option. We'll build the schools where we need them, when we need them," said County Commissioner Al Smith (R-Waldorf). "It will save the taxpayers money and will get schools built quicker."
But some worry that such agreements could generate unbridled growth dominated by large development firms willing to bankroll an entire school just to fast-track their homes. Commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large) said the county is considering a cap that would limit building permits to between 1,200 and 1,400 a year. "Otherwise we could be building thousands of homes and we couldn't keep up," he said.
In Calvert County, school administrators say the needs of their growing system are just as pressing. School officials were pleased the state approved additions to six crowded elementary schools: Beach, Huntingtown, Windy Hill, St. Leonard, Patuxent and Plum Point.
At Plum Point Elementary, for example, 788 students are squeezing into a building meant to accommodate 511. Superintendent J. Kenneth Horsmon said the state requirement to move to all-day kindergarten by September 2007 will only exacerbate the space constraints.