County Executive Laura Neuman said last week that she will work with the county school board and the county's delegation in Annapolis to petition state officials to fund the long-awaited Severna Park High construction project, which is scheduled to begin this year.
Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget proposal for fiscal year 2015 raised eyebrows in Anne Arundel when it included $18.8 million as the state's contribution toward the county's school projects but made no provision for $25.2 million the school system had requested to begin construction of Severna Park High's replacement.
The school system had requested $56 million in state construction funds overall.
Alex Szachnowicz, chief operating officer for Anne Arundel public schools, said the Severna Park High replacement would cost $134 million, and the school system has about $26 million for the project and is counting on $25.2 million from the state and $24.7 million from the county to get it underway.
Neuman and school officials are preparing to make their case for construction funding during a Feb. 5 session of the state Board of Public Works, which is composed of O'Malley, state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot. The board's annual session to discuss school construction funding was originally scheduled for last week, but was postponed because of inclement weather.
"I believe that in the county we've done everything required to be eligible for the state match, and we were disappointed not to see it in the governor's budget," Neuman said. "The county has really stepped up and been quite thorough and rather patient on this particular project. It's an important one for the community."
Neuman supported recent comments from the county delegation that Anne Arundel needs still another high school, saying she hopes the school system will address that when funding is secured for the new Severna Park High.
In previous years, county lawmakers and school officials have squabbled openly over funding matters. Both sides have recently expressed interest in improving relations, and the Arundel delegation has pledged it will back efforts to gain funding for Severna Park High School.
"We will provide a unified front," said Neuman, a Republican who is seeking election this year. She was appointed county executive last year after the resignation of John R. Leopold. "That is relatively new in the county. There has not been, for quite some time, a strong relationship between the school system and county government."
Neuman said state funding for the project is crucial because the county "doesn't have an additional $25 million in our budget. We are working very hard to recover from a challenging economy."
Del. Steven R. Schuh, chairman of the Anne Arundel delegation, said he believes there's a good chance to make the case for Severna Park's funding.
"There are rounds of capital funding left to go, one in February and one in May, and we are optimistic that the governor will provide funding for the project during one or both of the next two rounds for capital funding," said Schuh, a Republican running against Neuman for his party's nomination for county executive.
Schuh said that the school system ranked its projects in an order of priority, and O'Malley funded them in the order requested. Many of the projects ahead of Severna Park High, which ranked 19th on the list, were funded.
"It should be a much higher priority," Schuh said of Severna Park High. "This is a great example of how Board of Education priorities sometimes do not match the priorities of the delegates and the citizens of our community."
Deborah Ritchie, vice president of the Anne Arundel school board, said the school system chose an independent firm to carry out a utilization study to "raise the politics out of it."
Szachnowicz said he remains hopeful that funding will come through for the project, which is scheduled to begin in May. The new school is to be built where the stadium and athletic fields are now.
Students and staff would remain in the current school until the new one is complete. If the school is built on time, it should open in August or December 2016, Szachnowicz said. He said the school system will solicit bids next month for construction, and he expects the bids to be returned within 60 days.
In November, the school system heard it might get only $16.2 million in state construction money, including $5.7 million for renovations at Meade High School and $1 million toward a $6 million replacement project at Rolling Knolls Elementary, Szachnowicz said.
He said he petitioned for additional funding and learned this month that the state Interagency Committee on School Construction had recommended raising the allotment to $18.8 million.
Szachnowicz said petitioning the Board of Public Works is part of a process that includes requests to the General Assembly — and to the county executive and County Council should the request for Severna Park High funding fall short.
"Every year it's a building process," Szachnowicz said. "Our hope and purpose would be that at the end of the Board of Public Works meeting, that the number would be substantially more and many of the things we appealed would get funded.
"It's been that way two-plus decades that I've been personally involved in it," he said. "We've only completed two out of six steps."