Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer said yesterday that he is firmly committed to shifting a large part of the cost of new school construction from the state to local jurisdictions, even as local officials were gearing up to oppose the plan.
A task force appointed by Schaefer has recommended that the state stop footing the entire bill for new schools, and shift up to 50 percent of the cost to cities and counties. Wealthy counties, including Howard and Montgomery, would have to assume half the cost of new schools, while the poorest areas, including Baltimore, would have to pay 25 percent.
Local officials from the Washington area and around the state were preparing to oppose the new financing plan at a hearing last night. Many of them were resigned to the idea that they will have to take on some part of the cost of new schools, but they said they were not willing to take on as heavy a burden as Schaefer wants.
And some local officials, particularly those in Montgomery and Howard counties, are worried that they will not be able to recoup millions they have already spent on school construction in anticipation of being reimbursed by the state.
The task force recommended that the state contribute $280 million toward new schools in the next five years, with local jurisdictions contributing slightly more than $200 million to pay the $500 million cost of schools on the state's priority construction list.
"I won't go any more than that, I tell you right now. I won't go for more," Schaefer said yesterday, adding that the task force recommendation on what the state share should be may even be "a little high."
As governor, Schaefer has said he has seen that the state needs to put money in other areas, such as transportation projects and new mental hospitals.
"The local funding source is finite," said Barry Carter, deputy superintendent of the fast-growing school system in Anne Arundel, which would have to pay 45 percent of its costs under the proposal. "Whatever the local jurisdiction contributes to school facilities is not available for teacher salaries and textbooks."
Under the proposal, state funding for Anne Arundel's six-year capital building program would fall from $134 million to $73 million.
He warned that the state's new policies could return the county to a time of double shifts and classes in rented church basements, a common occurrence before 1971, when the state agreed to pay the cost of new schools.
While the official state policy since that time has been to pay all of school construction costs, in reality, rapidly growing counties have financed much of their own school costs because they could not wait for the state to come up with the money.
Montgomery, for example, has a large number of schools on the state's list of top priority projects for the next five years, so it would receive $60 million in that period under the task force proposal -- twice what it has received in the last five years. But officials are concerned that the state would not fully reimburse the county for $80 million in building costs incurred in the last two years.
During Howard's most recent period of rapid growth, it spent $57.5 million on school construction, almost all of it from local funds.
Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening said it's "an absolute given" that the state will no longer finance the entire cost of school construction. Under the task force proposal, Prince George's would have to pay 45 percent of school costs. It would get $25 million from the state over the next five years and be responsible for raising $21 million.
Glendening said the county is willing to spend more local money on school construction if the state also agrees to spend more in overall financing and if counties are given greater flexibility in using the money.