Assembly Puts New Schools In Jeopardy

By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 29, 2007

The conclusion of the Maryland General Assembly's three-week special session brought discouraging news to local school systems already frustrated by the scarcity of state funding for capital improvement projects.

"We're rapidly closing the door on new school construction projects," said Charles L. Wineland, assistant superintendent for supporting services for Charles County public schools. "The financial picture really is not very optimistic."

Last week, legislators approved the plan put forward by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) to cut $550 million from the projected fiscal 2009 state budget as part of the strategy to address a projected shortfall of at least $1.5 billion. One of the major components of the cutbacks will slow the growth in education spending mandated by the landmark Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act -- known as the Thornton plan -- passed in 2002.

Under the legislature's plan for cuts in education and other state aid, Calvert County is slated to receive $9.8 million less than officials there had expected in 2009, bringing the county's state aid to $109.8 million that year. Charles will receive $191.4 million, a decrease of $8.9 million, while St. Mary's County will see a drop of about $4.6 million, to $115.8 million.

In all three counties, the majority of the state funding goes to the public school system.

Worries about state funding are especially acute in Charles, the state's second-fastest growing school system over the past several years. As the housing market has sputtered this year, Charles officials already have scaled back a plan to build one school a year for the next 20 years, and further adjustments could be in the works.

The county is requesting $117 million from the state to fund school construction and renovation projects between 2009 and 2013, an amount local officials all but acknowledge they will not receive.

"Please note, it is unlikely the State will fund their share of the projects, nor will they fund their contribution in a timely manner," the Charles Board of Education said in a letter to the county commissioners earlier this month.

Charles schools already receive less state funding than many officials say they are due based on enrollment and the county's population. Ranked 10th in enrollment in Maryland, last year Charles County public schools received state aid that put them in 12th place among local school systems.

"The state is making an insignificant contribution to the construction and renovation of schools, so the whole load is falling on the shoulders of the county," said Charles County Commissioner Gary V. Hodge (D-St. Charles).

Officials in Calvert and St. Mary's counties said they are concerned about the decrease in funding but expect to find ways to continue funding for all planned capital projects.

But in Charles, where eight schools were listed in poor condition last spring, administrators acknowledged that the decrease in state funds probably will mean an inability to make comprehensive renovations.

"We'll do what we can to make the existing equipment continue to operate, which means patching and continuing to patch," Wineland said. "But if systems need to be replaced and it's not in the budget, it gets bumped, and you find yourself in a backlog."

That backlog is already growing for school projects in Charles: The state owes the county about $18 million for construction of Theodore G. Davis Middle School, which opened this year, and Mary Burgess Neal Elementary School, which is scheduled to open next year.

"The state is way behind on payments to counties, so what they're appropriating this year is just catch-up," said Charles County Commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large).

© 2007 The Washington Post Company