Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett announced Thursday that he will press the Maryland General Assembly and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) in 2014 to fund a major school construction program, similar to the $1 billion package Baltimore secured this year with the support of Montgomery legislators.
Leggett (D), flanked by more than 30 local and state lawmakers, said crowding from a decade-long enrollment surge has pushed the county’s school system of 151,600 students — historically one of the best-performing systems in the state — to the breaking point. From 2000 to 2012, Montgomery’s student population grew by 14,599 — more than Anne Arundel, Howard, Frederick and Baltimore counties combined. Nearly 9,000 children, mostly elementary school-age students, attend classes in trailers added to handle overflow. Others are placed in hallways and on auditorium stages, according to Superintendent Joshua Starr.
Officials are anticipating an additional 11,000 new students over the next six years.
“No other jurisdiction in Maryland is facing this tidal wave of students,” said Leggett, speaking Thursday morning at Julius West Middle School in Rockville.
Baltimore City schools, by contrast, lost 13,479 students over the past decade. The state, city and school system will contribute $60 million annually to support the issuance of $1 billion in construction bonds for rebuilding or renovating dozens of crumbling schools. The Maryland Stadium Authority will oversee the 10-year effort.
Montgomery seeks $20 million a year from the state to leverage its own $40 million outlay. These funds would supplement the county’s share of regular annual state contributions for school construction. Money would support bonds of up to $750 million for 56 construction projects to add capacity at seriously crowded schools.
Leggett’s proposal mirrors a similar call to action by one of his 2014 Democratic primary opponents, former County Executive Doug Duncan. In July, Duncan called for a “crash construction program” based on the Baltimore model.
Both Duncan and Leggett’s other opponent, County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Rockville-Gaithersburg) have said that Montgomery needs to exert more influence in Annapolis. In a statement Thursday, Duncan praised county officials for the initiative.
“It is a step in the right direction to guarantee that Montgomery County will continue to always put education first,” Duncan said. “Now we must go and be successful in getting that help from the state.”
The county faces an uphill fight in the General Assembly next year. Sequestration and the federal shutdown are expected to swell a deficit that is currently at $466 million. Montgomery will also be competing with other counties that are preparing big-ticket “asks” for the next legislative session. Baltimore County announced Wednesday that it will seek state assistance for its own major overhaul of crowded elementary schools in its central and southwestern neighborhoods. Prince George’s County will be seeking financing for the proposed $645 million Prince George’s County Regional Medical Center in Largo.
Leggett said support from Montgomery County was an important element in Baltimore City’s ability to secure the funding package. He made it clear Thursday that he expected reciprocity.
“I said at the time [to Baltimore lawmakers] there may come a me-too moment. It’s our me-too moment,” Leggett said.
His sentiments were echoed by Del. Sheila Hixson (D-Montomery), who said: “We were on their side. Now it’s our turn.”
But Baltimore City legislators may not share that sense of obligation. Del. Shawn Tarrant (D-Baltimore City) said that in exchange for help on schools funding, his delegation came to Montgomery’s aid by supporting an unpopular increase in the state gasoline tax to fund highway construction and mass transit projects such as the Purple Line.
“The quid pro already happened,” said Tarrant, who also serves as chief deputy majority whip in the State House. “We were good to them last session. We exchanged gifts last session. Everybody got a nice shiny red tricycle.”
Tarrant added, however, that Montgomery’s proposal can also stand on its own merits. “I think Montgomery County has a lot to offer the state of Maryland, and children should be in classrooms that are not overcrowded.”
Montgomery must also contend with the long-standing perception in Annapolis that the county’s wealth makes it less deserving of consideration for extra support. Officials said Thursday that the reality on the ground — especially in the schools — is quite different, with increasing numbers of students from low-income homes where English is not spoken. Just 32 percent of the system’s enrollment is white, non-Hispanic. Slightly more than 33 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
“Our schools are becoming poorer and browner,” said Montgomery Board of Education President Christopher Barclay. “We’re not asking for special treatment. We’re asking for space that we need for our children.”