O'Malley Proposes Millions For Schools

Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley, in foreground, and Lt. Gov.-elect Anthony G. Brown listen to participants at the Maryland Youth Inaugural, a gathering of more than 250 high schools students and others.
Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley, in foreground, and Lt. Gov.-elect Anthony G. Brown listen to participants at the Maryland Youth Inaugural, a gathering of more than 250 high schools students and others. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Maryland Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley said yesterday that he will propose spending a record $400 million on public school construction next year, making good on a costly campaign promise aimed at reducing the number of "temporary learning shacks" that have sprung up on schoolyards in the Washington suburbs and elsewhere in the state.

"We need to catch up with the backlog that affects all of you," O'Malley (D) told more than 250 high school students and others attending a Maryland Youth Inaugural two days before his swearing in as Maryland's 61st governor.

The event came as workers assembled scaffolding and set up chairs outside the State House in Annapolis for O'Malley's inaugural ceremony tomorrow and as transition aides continued to scramble on other fronts.

O'Malley plans to announce his two latest Cabinet picks today, aides said. He will nominate John R. Griffin as secretary of natural resources, a position he held during the past Democratic administration until he was dismissed by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, despite Griffin's popularity with conservationists. O'Malley also will seek to elevate Richard E. Hall to secretary of planning. Hall is a longtime manager in the Planning Department.

The picks will bring to seven the number of Cabinet choices O'Malley has made public, and aides said several others are close but will not be in place by tomorrow. The Department of Natural Resources plays a central role in efforts to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay and also focuses on the state's public lands, forests, wildlife and fish. The Planning Department works with local governments to chart growth.

Yesterday's focus was squarely on education, as O'Malley and Lt. Gov.-elect Anthony G. Brown (D) spent nearly two hours fielding questions in a town hall-style meeting on the campus of St. John's College in Annapolis. The pair got an earful from students who said preparation for state high school assessment tests demands too much classroom time.

O'Malley said he is a firm believer in standards but pledged that his administration "will be taking another look at this and trying to get the balance right."

O'Malley's announcement on school construction was not a foregone conclusion, given a tough budget year ahead and recent warnings that he might not be able to fully fund his education priorities in his first year.

Momentum for increased funding has swelled in recent years in the wake of a 2003 report that identified $3.85 billion in needs by 2013 and recommended a minimum of $250 million a year in state spending.

Annual funding dipped as low as $117 million early in the tenure of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), whom O'Malley defeated in November. But this year, the final of Ehrlich's term, the legislature bumped up spending to $323 million. Ehrlich indicated during last year's campaign that he would have proposed $338 million for school construction next year.

O'Malley's announcement was greeted cautiously by some legislative leaders, who said the record spending on school construction could pinch money available for capital projects planned at universities, museums and other facilities.

"It depends on what's in the rest of their capital budget," said Sen. P. J. Hogan (D-Montgomery), vice chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "As high of a priority as school construction is, there are other priorities."

O'Malley's proposed spending, the highest since the state's school construction program began in 1970s, also falls well short of wish lists drawn up by Montgomery and Prince George's counties, which weighed in at $134 million and $137 million, respectively. This year, the counties each received roughly 12 percent of the $323 million allocated statewide.

Speaking to reporters after the event, O'Malley said he was hopeful that his budget, which will be made public this week, will also include funds to hold the line on tuition at Maryland universities again next year.

O'Malley also allowed that his budget will "probably not" include funding next year for a geographic component of a school-aid formula that could send tens of millions of additional dollars to Prince George's and Montgomery.

O'Malley said, as he did last week, that he remains committed to phasing in those dollars in coming years and noted that an additional $580 million in increased education aid is mandated statewide next year.

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