Stories about crowded and dilapidated schools are circulating like business cards at the Maryland State House. Legislative leaders are repackaging their old pet projects as new ways to pay for classroom space. Education lobbyists are filing in and out of hearing rooms with lists of unmet needs.
School construction has emerged as a top priority in the 2005 legislative session. Just yesterday, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) released a capital budget earmarking $157 million for that purpose, the largest allotment in three years. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) has tied his perennial push for slot machine gambling to paying for school improvements. And House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) has pledged revenue from a tax loophole he intends to close.
At Kensington Parkwood Elementary in Bethesda, Tina Shahan's fifth-graders walk from a portable classroom to a central building for lunch.
(Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
School Construction Spending: The Maryland capital improvement budget released yesterday includes $157 million for school construction, of which $80 million has been committed for specific projects.
Schools Fall Short In State Funding (The Washington Post, Jan 27, 2005)
Cedar Lane, Marriotts Ridge Get Funds (The Washington Post, Jan 27, 2005)
New High School, Renovations in Ehrlich's Plan (The Washington Post, Jan 27, 2005)
Mixed Rulings on Charter School Bids (The Washington Post, Jan 27, 2005)
Budget Plan Would End $6 Million Calvert Grant, Lift Aid Only 3% (The Washington Post, Jan 23, 2005)
Leaders in Annapolis are responding to a statewide shortage of suitable classroom space that by all accounts -- from affluent suburban counties to rural outposts -- has reached a critical stage. They are also tapping into an issue that engenders passionate feelings among public school parents and generates political capital for those who deliver.
The needs are indisputable.
Arundel High School in Gambrills has waited 20 years for air conditioning. Cresthaven Elementary in Silver Spring holds more classes in trailers than in permanent classrooms. Nearly three-fourths of Charles County schools now hold more students than they were built for.
State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp released a study last February that showed Maryland's education infrastructure needed $3.85 billion in work over the next eight years -- including about $250 million a year from the state -- to meet minimal needs. Ehrlich, who came into office during an economic downturn, proposed about $100 million for school construction in each of the past two years, following an era in which the allotment routinely exceeded $200 million a year.
The dip in construction funding has contributed to the backlog, along with steadily growing enrollment; rising costs of steel and concrete; and a fleet of aging schools, the bulk of them built in the 1960s and 1970s and coming due for new boilers, heaters, electrical wiring and roofs.
Kopp's report only codified what school leaders and parents already knew. "It's not like we're asking for freshly shampooed carpets every day," said Rosanne Hurwitz, a PTA leader from Rockville. "We're asking for the basics."
County governments, which typically pay at least half the costs of school projects, have tried to fill some needs by advancing money for construction.
"Over the past few years, the State of Maryland has failed to be a full partner in our efforts to reduce overcrowding in our schools," Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said in a statement yesterday. "In fact, the Ehrlich administration is spending less this year on school construction statewide than we are spending in Montgomery County alone."
In Montgomery, 17,000 children attend classes in 719 portable classrooms -- trailers, essentially -- that threaten to erode the district's image as one of the nation's finest. The school system is seeking $126 million to build and fix schools in fiscal 2006.
Howard County schools hold classes in libraries and on stage in the "cafetorium," a space that already squeezed two uses into one. Some art and music teachers are left to push their wares from room to room on a cart. The fast-growing suburb is still seeking state compensation for construction projects completed in 1988.
Prince George's County could fill 15 elementary schools with the students it houses in 459 portable classrooms. The district expects more than 4,000 additional high school students by 2008, enough to fill two or three new campuses.
Across the state, students are bringing home stories of leaking roofs, gridlocked hallways and 100-degree classrooms. Parents are watching portable classrooms eat up the space where children once played.