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The time is now for Balto. Co. schools

FinanceSchoolsLocal GovernmentBudgets and BudgetingAmerican Civil Liberties UnionKevin Kamenetz

Baltimore County Public Schools resemble Baltimore City Public Schools in that both have aging infrastructures and many of the schools are not air conditioned, but there are major differences in enrollment trends and available local funding. While Baltimore City has had a net loss of students over decades, Baltimore County has experienced major increases in student enrollment, requiring additional seats. County public school enrollment was approximately 81,000 in 1979, is 108,000 today, and is projected to exceed 120,000 in the next decade.

As The Sun noted in a recent editorial, the county has opened only 35 new schools in the past 40 years. Omitted was the astonishing fact that between 1978 and 1984, the county also closed over 25 schools due to low enrollment during that period. The net building gain of new county schools during those 40 years is thus only in the single digits.

Unfortunately, of the 27 former school sites once owned by BCPS, most were returned to the county, repurposed and some even sold to developers, leaving a shortage of potential school sites in some of our most overcrowded neighborhoods.

The county's response to an increase of 30,000 students in the school system over 40 years has been weak, with funding for new schools and updated renovations driven by angry and organized parents rather than by long-term, strategic planning.

Parents' frustration with this lack of planning in the past 10 years has led to the organization of groups unified over the desire to find relief for their school or set of community schools. On Facebook, the many groups of organized parents include: Towson Families United, Stoneleigh United, Friends of Hampton Elementary, Dundalk United, Dumbarton United, People for Air Conditioning at Lutherville Lab and ABCSchools.

As recently as 2008, air conditioning was not installed in all school renovations and additions. When Ridgely Middle School's renovation and addition were completed without installing air conditioning, two years of intense parental advocacy followed. BCPS finally air-conditioned Ridgely and six other schools, and the issue entered the county discourse and became a political matter.

Unfortunately, not every family in Baltimore County can afford the time and effort to organize at the grass-roots level. Therefore, the recently approved $500,000 contract to systematically review all county school facilities is welcome news. We hope that the review, similar to the Baltimore City schools' facilities assessment, includes a fair timeline in which to address equitably the infrastructure needs of our schools.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz understands school construction needs and has committed annual funding to air conditioning, site acquisition, updated technology and new school construction. But our needs require far more than any one single budget year can provide — and grow in cost every year a project is delayed.

We need the county executive and schools Superintendent Dallas Dance to discuss with the community a long-term plan for school funding, similar to Baltimore City's work on the issue over the last two years. Baltimore County has a huge advantage over the city in that it has much greater local wealth to support capital borrowing. A feasible funding solution exists, using the county's annual capital budget and other revenue sources.

According to Bebe Verdery at the ACLU of Maryland: "The county could use a third-party authority, as Baltimore City is doing, to borrow a large amount of funding up-front now, while interest rates are low, to build/renovate schools in the short term, and pay off that debt over 30 years, using existing capital dollars as well as, potentially, new revenue. The county could use an existing county authority, or create a new one, for the financing."

Because of Baltimore County's responsible fiscal reputation (with a triple A bond rating), the county can remain independent from the state (and the state stipulations required under the $1 billion plan approved for Baltimore City by the General Assembly). The ACLU says a local authority would need about $60 million a year to pay off $1 billion in debt, and the county would need to use only a portion of its annual capital expenditure on school construction to pay off the authority's bonds.

This would create guaranteed funding for over half of the expected $1.7 billion needed to meet school construction needs. Beyond that, a detailed analysis would determine whether any new revenue would be necessary to finance the full plan. This long-term plan would also help prevent any new administration from deleting or adding "pet" projects to annual budgets. The plan would also distribute funds more equitably, according to construction needs across the county.

Parents and education advocates must unite to demand a public discourse on how school construction will be funded in the next decade. Mr. Dance, our school board and our county government should start that conversation immediately.

Good schools are inextricably tied to higher property values and better quality of life. All of Baltimore County will see gains if we do this, particularly our children. There is no time to lose.

Yara Cheikh serves on the Education Committee of the League of Women Voters of Baltimore County. She is a member of Towson Families United and PTA president at Hampton Elementary School. Her email is ycheikh@aol.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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FinanceSchoolsLocal GovernmentBudgets and BudgetingAmerican Civil Liberties UnionKevin Kamenetz
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