Hogan plans to continue summoning school leaders for 'Begathon'

Gov. Larry Hogan said he would continue to require school leaders to explain their requests for state money.

Defying the General Assembly, Gov. Larry Hogan said Wednesday that he will continue to require local school superintendents to take part in the Annapolis ritual known as the "Begathon."

The annual event compels the leaders of Maryland's 24 local school districts to appear before the Board of Public Works to justify the money they are seeking from the state. The legislature sought last year to change the process, which has long been the subject of complaints.

Hogan strongly objected. With the support of Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot, but over the objections of Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, he directed the board's secretary to summon the leaders of Maryland's school districts to Annapolis for the body's Jan. 25 meeting.

That is the date of this year's Begathon, where the board has traditionally spent a full day hearing appeals of decisions made by the Interagency Committee on School Construction about how it has allocated state funds.

Hogan attacked the legislature's decision to insert a provision in the capital budget bill last year eliminating the requirement that superintendents appear before the board to answer questions.

The governor pointed to an opinion by the board's counsel saying it may continue to seek information from superintendents. The opinion said the legislature curbed school systems' right to appeal decisions by the committee but not the board's power to oversee the program.

"Anyone who thinks they can just take away that authority on a whim is gravely mistaken," Hogan said.

The Republican governor's criticism of the Democratic-controlled Assembly brought an unusually vehement response from Kopp, a Democrat. The usually deferential and soft-spoken treasurer, who is elected by the General Assembly, said lawmakers had good reasons for their decision.

Hogan tried to interject, but Kopp insisted: "Sir, it's my time."

"In the last year or two years, what had been a set of very useful and informative hearings have turned into a political barrage of bullying and not one of inquiry," said Kopp, calling the process unnecessary and "politically destructive."

The governor retorted that "what you call bullying is what we would call fiscal responsibility and accessibility." Hogan said the budget provision amounted to "misguided political shenanigans" sneaked into the bill in the "middle of the night."

"The Board of Public Works is not going to be a rubber stamp of approval," Hogan said.

However, Kopp said the legislature passed the capital budget bill in the open, with votes on the House and Senate floors.

"It's not a secret," she said.

The Assembly's decision to try to end the Begathon was prompted in part by last year's event. Some influential lawmakers heard complaints that superintendents were treated in a demeaning manner by Hogan and Franchot, who contended they were doing their job by asking hard questions.

One of the topics at last year's Begathon was air conditioning in public schools in Baltimore city and county. Both jurisdictions are in the process of converting their schools to central air conditioning, but Hogan and Franchot pressed to use portable units to cool classrooms while that effort continues.

After the jurisdictions rejected that suggestion as too costly, the board voted in May to withhold $10 million from county schools and $5 million from those in the city.

Kopp said it's time to restore that money so the city and county can use it for "maintenance and the purposes they are intended for."

A former delegate, Kopp has been re-elected repeatedly by lawmakers. However, some Democrats have grumbled that she has not been sufficiently aggressive in confronting Hogan.

Her comments Wednesday won praise from legislative leaders.

"I'm glad to see Kopp getting into it," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch. "I'm glad she stood up for the public school construction program."

mdresser@baltsun.com

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