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State approves last round of school construction projects

State officials approved more than $161 million in school construction funding Wednesday that will allow school systems in the Baltimore area to undertake renovation projects, tackling problems that include sweltering and overcrowded classrooms and dilapidated buildings and amenities.

The Maryland Board of Public Works approved the last round of construction dollars being doled out to schools for fiscal year 2013. The state approved $187.5 million in funding in January, bringing the total amount for school construction projects to nearly $350 million, a more than $85 million increase from fiscal year 2012.

The additional money will fund increased demand from schools to target systemic challenges, state officials said. Collectively, districts requested 40 more projects than they did in the previous year. Those projects specifically address factors that affect learning, including heating and air conditioning.

"Maryland has placed a great amount of emphasis on education, and having first-rate facilities is very important," said David Lever, who oversees school construction for the state. "Those are very effective investments because they extend the life of the facility, and improve comfort and [student productivity]." $25 million out of the $350 million hasn't yet been allocated, he said, but will be targeted toward energy-efficient projects, a growing trend in Maryland schools.

Lever said that the state approved funding for 70 percent of the infrastructure upgrade requests.

The basic, but costly, upgrades were a crucial part of Baltimore City's list this year. The system, which has the oldest school facilities, received $16 million more in state construction funds this year, for a total of $42.6 million — among the highest awards in the state.

"The money is so plentiful this year that we'll be able to knock out most of our systemic issues in the schools," said Keith Scroggins, chief operating officer for city schools. "It's going to go a long way in improving conditions in the schools. We're going to really be able to make a difference."

In addition to a few major renovation projects, like a new Waverly Elementary/Middle School and the completion of a renovated and expanded Leith Walk Elementary, about 40 projects are being funded that include upgrades like air conditioning, boilers, roofs, elevators, doors, windows and fire alarms.

"Air conditioning is going to allow students to really be able to focus on learning and teachers focused on instruction," said Khaleel Desaque, principal of Hilton Elementary, one of the schools approved to receive central air conditioning.

Desaque said that during warmer months, because the number of classrooms that have window air conditioning units is limited, "it's a constant dance to figure out what kids need to be in what classrooms."

Other school systems will be able to carry out large-scale projects, like a new elementary and middle school slated to be built in Howard County. In Anne Arundel County, the money will be used for additions to accommodate that county's burgeoning kindergarten program.

And Baltimore County received funding to continue renovation projects at schools like Stoneleigh Elementary.

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said that the county's $43.3 million in funding this year will help the school system continue a steady process of upgrading its facilities, while allowing priorities like Stoneleigh to be completed ahead of schedule.

"The priority that has been given to this project has allowed us to take great care to make sure that the renovation and remodeling will be something that the community will be proud of, as they have been in the past," Hairston said.

This year, Gov. Martin O'Malley pledged to increase school construction funding, saying that it would also be an engine for jobs.

State and local education officials lauded what they called the largest investment by the state in school construction in years. Lever said that officials usually anticipate about $250 million a year.

"We fared very well this year, and this is a tremendous amount of money," Lever said. "We expect a great number of projects to move forward."

erica.green@baltsun.com

School construction funding

The counties in the Baltimore area received the following total funding for school construction.

Anne Arundel County: $33.3 million

Baltimore County: $43.3 million

Baltimore City: $42.6 million

Harford County: $14.5 million

Howard County: $32.4 million

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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