Maryland lawmakers move to change school construction process, provoking veto threat from Gov. Hogan

After recent fights and scandals over schools lacking air conditioning or heating, Maryland lawmakers are moving to rewrite the process of deciding which schools can get repaired, renovated or rebuilt.

The proposal is moving quickly and appears headed for a veto showdown with Gov. Larry Hogan.

By a veto-proof margin, the House of Delegates on Tuesday approved the measure to strip that authority from the state spending board composed of Hogan, the state comptroller and treasurer and give it to a new commission appointed by state leaders. Even before the Democratic-controlled House gave the bill preliminary approval Monday night, the Republican governor was threatening a veto.

The bill is now speeding through the Senate, which suspended normal procedures Tuesday, and could possibly be presented to Hogan by Friday.

Democratic supporters say the bill would strip the Board of Public Works of its “bully pulpit” power to override the priorities of local school administrators.

“We have decided to take politics out of school construction,” said Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat.

McIntosh blamed politics for the negative national attention city schools received about frigid classrooms this winter that spurred viral photos of students attending class in coats and hats. A year earlier, the board had withheld $10 million from the city and Baltimore County school districts until officials presented plans to install air conditioning in schools that lacked them.

“So this year, kids in Baltimore City had air conditioning, but they didn’t have heat,” McIntosh said on the House floor, explaining that the district had to forgo heating repairs to install air conditioning. “Thanks to that bully pulpit, Maryland children were featured on CNN with coats and gloves.”

Republican lawmakers have criticized the proposal as an attempt to strip power from Hogan, who has garnered praise from many parents concerned about crumbling infrastructure and overheated classrooms during warm months.

“We need to remember that that bully pulpit that the Board of Public Works has, whether you or I like it politically, it actually produces results for the children,” said Del. Nic Kipke, the House minority leader. “More kids are getting air conditioning in their schools because of the political pressure.”

Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat, is also protesting the bill as a political attack, though none of his fellow Democrats have defended him. Treasurer Nancy Kopp, also a Democrat, could not be reached for comment.

Hogan and Franchot both suggested that transferring oversight from a bipartisan board of elected officials that conducts its business in public and giving it to a committee would diminish transparency and accountability.

“The comptroller has been a strong defender of the role of the Board of Public Works not just as a steward of the Maryland school construction program but as a steward of taxpayer dollars,” said Len Foxwell, Franchot’s chief of staff. “If politics is synonymous with transparency and public accountability, then the comptroller believes this is a good thing.”

Hogan has said that if the bill passes he would veto it “the second it appeared in front of” him.”

“It’s probably one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard coming out of Annapolis,” he said. “People are demanding more transparency, more accountability in education and more oversight. For them to remove the only oversight involved and to try to take this away from the state leaders and give it to this group? It would be absolutely dead on arrival.”

The proposal is attached to a set of reforms to the process used to vet projects seeking state funding. The legislation includes provisions that could allow growing jurisdictions to more easily acquire land for new schools and give cash-strapped school districts more flexibility in spending state money. In Baltimore, $66 million of heating system and roof repairs have been delayed or canceled since 2009 because they ran afoul of funding guidelines.

The legislation also raises the state goal for annual school construction spending to $400 million.

Maryland spends more than $300 million on school construction projects every year, sharing the costs with local governments. The state covers at least half of school construction costs, and in poorer jurisdictions, it pays most or all of them — 93 percent in Baltimore and 100 percent in Somerset County.

Proposals for specific renovation or construction projects are vetted by a five-member panel known as the Interagency Committee on School Construction, or IAC. But the Board of Public Works has final say over which projects are funded.

The committee is composed of the state superintendent of schools, secretary of general services and secretary of planning, and appointees of the Senate president and House speaker.

The legislation would establish a new Interagency Commission that has final say. Its membership would include two appointees by the governor, two by the Senate president and two by the House speaker.

It is not the first time the General Assembly has tried to overhaul the school construction funding process. A similar measure was included in state budget language last year, but McIntosh said it was ineffective because it “did not have the force of law.” Lawmakers also sought in 2016 to end an annual routine known by many as the “Begathon,” in which school superintendents appear before the Board of Public Works to pitch their desired construction projects, but Hogan has continued the tradition.

McIntosh said Democrats were prompted to go further this year after high profile fights between the board and local school officials.

In recent years, Hogan and Franchot have pressed local officials about mold in Howard County schools and lack of air conditioning in Baltimore city and county. Last year, they clashed with Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democratic candidate for governor, over rebuilding a Timonium high school.

“If it happened once, fine,” McIntosh said. “It’s happened several times now.”

Republicans sought to amend the bill over concerns shared by Hogan and Franchot that an independent IAC could open it to more influence by lobbyists.

The Democratic majority agreed to bar committee members from holding interests in construction businesses, but rejected other proposals to broaden a prohibition already within the legislation against registered lobbyists joining the group.

McIntosh said she is hopeful the Senate will be receptive to the legislation.

Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat and former city schools teacher, said he is studying the proposal but that the process has too often put politics above policy.

“School construction is something that is inherently political and I think we have an obligation to do whatever we can to base the policymaking on fact and need,” Ferguson said.

Sean Johnson, director of legislative affairs for the Maryland State Education Association, said lawmakers need to focus on funding, not the process.

“We have a $4 billion backlog on school construction projects in this state, with students learning in trailers and moldy buildings with lead-piped water fountains,” Johnson said in a statement. “We need to focus less on politicians’ egos and more on generating the funding needed to ensure all students have modern and safe learning environments.”

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