Duncan's Plan Could Delay School Projects

Douglas M. Duncan's plan to delay school construction funding has been criticized by school officials for its
Douglas M. Duncan's plan to delay school construction funding has been criticized by school officials for its "domino effect." (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) announced what he called "a record level of funding to build new schools and modernize old ones" when he unveiled his six-year capital construction budget this month.

But a closer look at the plan shows it could delay more than 45 building and modernization projects by as much as two years -- a prospect that has parents and school officials in Montgomery County deeply concerned.

"This impacts everybody, because once you throw the schedule off, everyone who's in the queue knows it's going to affect everyone else," said Cindy Kerr, president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations.

Although Duncan's plan increases school construction funding by almost 25 percent, it pushes the bulk of the money to the last three years of the six-year plan. Duncan's proposal means an estimated $110.3 million slated to be spent in fiscal 2007 and 2008 would be spent instead beginning in 2010. School officials say they cannot begin the bidding process for any work unless they have they money in hand.

In a memo sent to the Board of Education, Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said a preliminary analysis shows that Duncan's plan would delay construction on 10 elementary school gymnasiums by a year to 2008. Modernization projects at as many as 20 campuses, including College Gardens and Cabin John elementary schools, also would be put off a year -- except in the case of Paint Branch High School, where work slated to begin in 2011 would be delayed until 2013. Also, a portion of modernization work scheduled to start this year at Walter Johnson High School would be delayed until 2008.

"One of the challenges that many schools are facing is that they've already experienced a delay in the early part of the decade, when the dollars weren't available," said Larry Bowers, chief operating officer for the school system. "It may not sound like a year is that much, but since they've already accepted the fact that they were delayed once, you can understand the frustration.

"It's a domino effect," Bowers added. "There's an order to everything we ask for."

If Duncan's plan is endorsed, the school system would fall about $81.5 million short of what it asked for in its budget request for fiscal 2007, Bowers said.

David Weaver, spokesman for the county executive, said Duncan -- who is running for governor -- proposed pushing funding to the last three years of the program in part because of concerns that the county would not receive enough money from the state to fully fund its school construction needs in the first few years of the plan.

"In putting together the budget, we had to make certain assumptions about funding from the state," Weaver said. "We think they are realistic assumptions. This isn't the final word on the schools budget. We want to work with the PTAs and the council and the state delegation."

And in a shot at the man whom Duncan hopes to beat should he win the Democratic nomination for governor, Weaver noted that whereas Duncan has proposed more than $400 million for school construction in his education plan, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has proposed spending $280 million in his budget for the entire state.

Duncan's Democratic opponent, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, has pledged to spend at least $250 million a year on school construction for the state if elected governor.

"It's frustrating," said Marney Jacob, co-chairman of the parent-teacher group's committee on capital improvement projects. "We know we take a huge part of the budget. We know we ask for a huge part, but it benefits our kids."

But the state is not the only source of potential revenue. The County Council, which will have final say over the capital budget, could find ways to aid the school system.

"We're just at the very beginning of the process, and we rarely approve a budget as it's sent to us," said George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), council president. "I spoke to Superintendent Weast, and he said he's trying to hold back the tide. I suspect he's trying to stir up the tide."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company