The fast-growing Maryland counties in the Washington area aren't exactly happy with a new proposal that local governments share the cost of public school construction with the state, but officials say the plan could be worse.
A special commission studying the school construction issue is recommending that the state rescind its policy of picking up the entire cost of school construction and instead share the responsibility with local governments. For some of the wealthier counties, including Montgomery and Howard, that would mean local governments would have to come up with 50 percent of the construction costs.
"It's not the best but it's certainly not bad," said state Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery), a member of the commission. "It's certainly better than no program at all."
Under the proposal informally agreed to by the task force, no county would pay more than 50 percent of the costs. The state would pay 55 percent of the costs in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties, and it would pick up 75 percent of the tab in the poorest jurisdictions, such as the city of Baltimore and Garrett County.
While the proposed plan might help fast-growing areas provide for their needs, it could put a strain on them financially, and Anne Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer said it could force his county not to adopt a construction program "as ambitious as we need."
Lighthizer is a member of the task force appointed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer to study the state's school construction program. Schaefer has said repeatedly that he is not happy with the state's policy of paying for school construction, and that he favors a program that would require wealthier counties to pay more of the school construction costs.
The task force has recommended just that, although state Treasurer Lucille Maurer, vice chairwoman of the group, said that its recommendations are only preliminary. "There is a recognition that there has to be a change" in the current policy, Maurer said, adding: "We're dealing with concepts, not details."
The task force will hold a public hearing next month on the proposal before submitting its final recommendations to Schaefer and the state Board of Public Works.
But there is a consensus among task force members on the cost-sharing proposal and a recommendation that the state commit $300 million over the next five years for school construction. Local governments would need to contribute approximately $200 million in order to pay for the nearly $500 million on the state's priority construction list.
It is unclear, however, whether Schaefer would make such a large commitment to local school construction.
The group also agreed that the state should come up with some sort of system to help the jurisdictions get low-interest loans to pay for their share of the school construction.
Although Montgomery is in the group of counties that would pay the largest share of construction costs, Levitan said the county also would receive more money under the current proposal than it has in recent years. Montgomery has projects totaling $121 million on what state officials call the "A list," much more than any other jurisdiction. It would thus receive more than $60 million during the next five years. It has received only $30 million during the last five years.
During the past two years, the county has spent $105 million for school construction that is technically eligible for state repayment. It has received approximately $20 million from the state during that time.
Other counties also have spent their own money building schools in the hope of repayment from the state. Howard County, for example, has spent about $40 million over the last two years, according to Charles Ecker, the county's associate school superintendent.
Under the proposal, Howard would receive half of the $25 million for which it is now eligible. "I guess $12.5 million is better than nothing," Ecker said.
The state adopted the ambitious program of paying for all school construction costs -- minus land purchases and engineering costs -- in 1971, under Gov. Marvin Mandel. It has never had the money to live up to the commitment.
In reality, a county wealthy enough to build its own schools did so, and then hoped for state reimbursement. Those that couldn't afford it had to make do until the state came through with the money.
Under the proposal, Prince George's would receive about $25 million from the state over the next five years, and be responsible for raising nearly $21 million. Anne Arundel would receive $38 million in state funds, and need $31 million in local contributions.