Leggett's budget preserves school construction in Montgomery

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010

School construction will move full speed ahead in Montgomery County under a six-year, $3.9 billion capital budget that county executive Isiah Leggett will unveil Friday, officials said.

The plan, which increases capital spending for schools by more than 17 percent over the previous six-year plan, shows that Leggett (D) is prioritizing education as budget woes force the county to make difficult decisions about where money is spent.

"We're ecstatic," said Montgomery County Board of Education President Patricia O'Neill, who said that many schools were physically wearing out and that many classes remained in trailers. "Without the construction money we'll have whole villages of the portables," said O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase).

The budget will fund all of the construction projects in the $1.5 billion plan approved by the Board of Education in November; Leggett's budget trims about 1 percent of the total request, county spokesman Patrick Lacefield said. "We're squeezing other projects to give schools more resources."

Under the plan, 18 schools will be renovated, 11 will gain additions and a new elementary and middle school will be built in Clarksburg, one of the county's fastest-growing areas.

The new budget, which takes advantage of what county officials said was a 30 percent drop in construction costs in the past two years, puts back on track the modernization of Paint Branch, Gaithersburg and Wheaton high schools and gives the green light for an addition at Clarksburg High. The principals of those schools are planning to stand with Leggett as he introduces his proposal Friday at Paint Branch.

Even with the relatively generous plans for capital improvements, the school system's operating budget, which pays for day-to-day school operations, not construction, still faces a major crunch. And it could worsen, depending on funding decisions made by the Maryland legislature in the coming weeks.

Leggett's proposed capital budget must be approved by the County Council.

"If everything holds together, they will get it funded," said County Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), who chairs the education committee. "What this does is balance out what might happen on the operating side," which might be painful, she said.

Superintendent Jerry D. Weast praised Leggett's plan. "We applaud the county executive's decision to take full advantage of low construction costs to meet the current and future needs of our growing school system," Weast said. "This construction budget . . . will save the county millions of dollars."

Staff writer Michael Laris contributed to this report.

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