ANNAPOLIS, OCT. 14 -- A task force reviewing Maryland's school construction program officially recommended today that the state abandon its policy of paying for new schools and require local jurisdictions to begin paying a much larger share.
The group recommended to Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the General Assembly a five-year construction program of at least $500 million, with the state paying 60 percent of the total. The group recommended a first-year state contribution of $60 million, with the total to increase in following years, depending on state government's economic health.
Task force Chairman Donald Hutchinson, former Baltimore County executive, called the $60 million "the minimal program we think the state can afford" to keep up with the state's school needs.
The proposal includes a sliding scale, so that wealthy counties such as Montgomery and Howard would pay half of their construction costs, while poor jurisdictions, such as Baltimore and Somerset counties, would pay 25 percent of their costs. Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties would each be responsible for 45 percent of the cost of building their new schools.
Although Montgomery is in the group of counties that would pay the largest share of construction costs, it also would receive the most money under projections drawn from the recommendations.
The task force, composed of schools officials and legislators from around the state, rejected individual proposals that would have lightened the load for poor counties or those experiencing rapid growth. But members worried that the cost-sharing could mean drastic local tax increases, especially in the poorest jurisdictions.
The group was unanimous in its feeling that $60 million was a minimum the state should pay, but that may be high for Schaefer. He has sent letters to education officials indicating that he wants to spend no more than $55 million next year on school construction. That is about what the state spent last year.
The task force's recommendation reflects Schaefer's pledge to erase the state's 1972 commitment to fund the entire cost of building schools. "Nobody likes to shift the burden to another level of government," said state Treasurer Lucille Maurer, but she acknowledged that the state was no longer willing to pay the total cost.
Schaefer has said the state has other ways to spend the money, such as on universities and mental hospitals.
In reality, the state has rarely lived up to the full-funding bargain. A county wealthy enough to build its own schools, such as Montgomery, did so, and hoped for reimbursement.
Montgomery has projects totaling $121 million on what state officials call the "A list," and thus would receive more than $60 million in state aid during the next five years. The county has received only $30 million during the last five years.
Howard would receive half of the $25 million for which it is now eligible. Prince George's would receive about $25 million and be responsible for raising nearly $21 million, while Anne Arundel would receive $38 million in state aid and would need $31 million in local contributions.
The task force recommended that as the state's ability to afford additional debt grows, Schaefer and the legislature should commit more money to the school construction program. That additional money should be allocated according to the financial hardships faced by the various counties, members agreed.
The task force will propose at a later date some sort of building authority to help the state's poorest jurisdictions take advantage of the state's high bond rating in paying for the local share of the cost.