It's come to this: Among the Halloween pumpkins at the St. Mary's County Governmental Center sits one carved as an eastern narrow-mouthed toad.
With all the debate over possible sites for new schools in the county, people are starting to get creative. Every piece of land that comes under consideration seems to set off a new controversy, whether political, financial, environmental, educational or, in one case, toad-related: The endangered species would limit building at some locations.
"We're hurting for schools," said state Del. John F. Wood Jr. (D-St. Mary's). "We are hurting."
The school board will talk about potential sites at its meeting scheduled for Wednesday, said Cathy Allen, chairman of the board. The most immediate need is for two elementary schools, then a high school, a middle school and more elementary schools. Public schools officials have considered 61 possible spots.
In Annapolis, state officials are arguing about a proposed land deal in St. Mary's. The state would sell 836 acres of conservation land to a Baltimore business owner -- Willard Hackerman, the president and chief executive of the Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. -- who would donate 120 or more acres for schools, state officials said, and would donate the conservation easements back to the state so the land would remain undeveloped.
This month a fiscal analyst told legislators that the buyer potentially could receive a tax break of more than $6 million for land bought for $2.5 million. Legislators grilled General Services Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford about why the name of the buyer was kept secret, why the state would act as a broker and why the price of the land had not increased over the price the state paid. Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's) said people calling his office have been overwhelmingly against the deal.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) distanced himself from the whole thing last week.
It is disappointing, said St. Mary's Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R-Golden Beach), because the deal could ensure that land would be preserved while the county got a good site for a new high school and middle school; it also could save money that could be spent on classrooms.
The parcel involved in the proposed deal -- woodlands near Indian Bridge Road -- is situated between fast-growing areas of the county where new schools are needed. "Yes, it should have been done in the open, but it can still come out. Put it all on the table, and then make a decision," Jarboe said. "Don't immediately react and say, 'This is a bad deal.' "
Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large), president of the Board of County Commissioners, said that if the deal did not work out perhaps there would be another way the county could acquire land at the location.
County officials are waiting to hear what will happen with another parcel -- just across the road -- that they hope to swap with a state-owned parcel so they can build and avoid endangering the toad, a protected species.
McKay hopes that deal will be completed by the end of the year. Dyson has said he is concerned about how officials can ensure the toad will not be found on nearby land, including the 836-acre tract; the toad has reportedly been spotted in numerous parts of the county.
"Who's ever seen one?" Wood asked. Jarboe said he would like to know that, too. "You talk about secret deals," Jarboe said. "There's something going on with this toad."
It's possible that a developer would donate land for schools in the Wildewood area, county officials said, and in return get about 400 acres added to the development district where homes could be built.
Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. (D-Leonardtown) said developers in the Leonardtown area might donate land for schools.
"I'm so excited for the day when we can get land without having to tie a developer's fortune to it," said Clare Whitbeck, who is running against Allen for a seat on the school board. "We won't have to do any special favors -- just buy the land that's suitable and build a school on it."
Mattingly said officials will keep looking for owners who might be interested in donating a site. If they have to, they will buy land, he said, but that means less money for the school buildings and educational programs. "And every day the price of property is going up."
Wood said that local officials should have been thinking about the matter 10 or 15 years ago and that it will only get harder as land values increase.
Jarboe said: "You're only going to find so much land right within the development district that's affordable, so what are you going to do? Put it on [areas restricted by the flight path of the Navy air station]? Put it on Myrtle Point? Environmentalists would fight you."
McKay said the county will be looking at property owned by government agencies.
Allen said her sense was the school board would hope to avoid redistricting but hasn't ruled anything out.
Jarboe has. "We don't need any more toad land."