Panel launches study of how Maryland builds schools

A commission has launched the first examination of Maryland's school construction in 12 years.

A commission set up by General Assembly leaders has launched the first comprehensive examination of Maryland's school construction program in 12 years, looking for ways to hold down costs while building better places to learn.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who created the commission, appeared at the initial meeting of the 21st Century School Facilities Commission Thursday to stress the importance of its mission.

Busch said that while the state spends roughly $300 million a year helping local governments build and renovate schools, it seems to be falling behind in many counties.

"People vote with their feet and buy homes where the best schools exist," said Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "It's a question of how you go about doing it and what the life expectancy of the schools should be."

Miller said the commission will revisit many of the issues last studied from 2002-2004 by a panel headed by state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, also a member of the new panel.

The Senate president, a Calvert County Democrat, said he expects the legislature to act on the commission's recommendations, which are due in December, when it reconvenes in January.

"We're going to unequivocally come together next year," he said. "Your work will not be in vain."

The commission is expected to meet regularly through this year to study how Maryland finances and builds schools in a time of rising construction costs and changing public expectations.

The panel is chaired by construction executive Martin G. Knott Jr. of Knott Mechanical Inc. and includes lawmakers who oversee school construction, senators and delegates of both parties, Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner, school superintendents, business executives and representatives of organized labor.

The commission is strictly a legislative initiative, and does not include members of the Hogan administration.

Miller noted that Maryland is one of five states that play a significant role in building local schools. Acting through the Interagency Committee on School Construction, the state pays anywhere from 50 percent to 100 percent of eligible local construction costs for major projects. The percentages are determined by a formula that takes into account the wealth of the jurisdiction, along with other factors.

David G. Lever, executive director of the interagency committee, said Maryland faces a significant problem dealing with its inventory of aging schools. He said 52 percent of the state's 1,392 public school buildings were built before 1990, while many are still relics of the "open classroom" design approach prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s.

One topic that is expected to be high on the commission's list is how to encourage local school systems to better maintain their buildings to extend their useful life. That issue has captured to intense attention of the Board of Public Works. Its members, especially Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot, have in public meetings frequently brought up maintenance as a priority.

Another question the panel will grapple with is the cost of building schools, which varies widely across the state. Recent elementary school replacement projects have ranged in cost from almost $60,000 per student for one in Montgomery County to $31,000 for one in Washington County.

One question that is bound to come up is how charter schools have been able to build schools cheaper and for less money than traditional public school systems.

Sen. James C. Rosapepe, a Prince George's County Democrat who serves on the Senate's education subcommittee, said the commission has an "enormous opportunity to find ways to build schools faster and more economically.

"The traditional way we have built public schools is inefficient," he said.

Rosapepe, who is not a commission member but attended the meeting, said improved technology allows construction companies to build schools at lower costs but Maryland has not been taking advantage of those new techniques.

"The technology of building materials and construction techniques has advanced so you can build the same quality building much faster and much cheaper," he said.

The senator said he hopes the commission will also question the specifications school systems have adopted for school construction.

"Some school systems now want to build a bathroom into every school classroom. That's nice, but it's very expensive," he said.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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