The prevailing governing philosophy of Baltimore County might well be summed up, with apologies to Henry David Thoreau, as "That government is best which governs least interestingly." As such, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz appeared to go to great lengths in his budget address to the County Council this morning to conceal the fact that he is proposing something quite significant. But there it is, toward the bottom of page eight, after a lengthy discussion of the merits of lowering the projected rate of return on county pensions and forward-funding OPEB obligations (eyes glazing over yet?): a plan to substantially increase borrowing for school construction over the next several years.
Overcrowding in county schools has long been a major complaint, most recently along the York Road corridor and in the Catonsville area. But the age of the facilities has also become an issue; more than 80 percent of the county's schools are more than 40 years old, and the problems that poses go far beyond the lack of air conditioning, a cause celebre. Mr. Kamenetz's proposal calls for the construction of 15 new schools (10 more than had been planned) and the renovation of 11 others (nine more than planned). All told, that will produce 11,000 new or replacement school seats countywide by 2021, a program that would take the district from a projected deficit of space for its students to a modest surplus.
In all, the county executive is proposing $1.1 billion in spending on school construction, a figure that matches the landmark school construction and renovation program Baltimore City secured during the 2013 General Assembly session. It takes a little bit of creative math to get the county's commitment to reach that mark (it includes, for example, money that has already been allocated, dating back to 2011), but the proposal unquestionably involves a new degree of commitment by the county government. Mr. Kamenetz is proposing to include bond issues totaling about $460 million over the next three election cycles, an increase of 28 percent over the previous three cycles and a more than doubling of school borrowing compared to the 2002-2006 period.
Three months ago, Mr. Kamenetz joined the executives from Montgomery and Prince George's counties to lobby the General Assembly to get a major commitment of funds from the state like the one Baltimore City had gotten. But the three ran into resistance for a variety of reasons, in particular, a sense among lawmakers that the counties (and especially Montgomery and Baltimore) had significant capacity to handle their outmoded schools, if only they would tap the resources already available to them. Mr. Kamenetz is proposing, to a degree, to do just that.
The plan, which will require approval of the council and voters and will be fully fleshed out during the next year, does not entail a wholesale abandonment of the Baltimore County way and the near maniacal fiscal conservatism that entails. Mr. Kamenetz is not proposing an increase in the property tax (which hasn't gone up in 26 years) or the income tax (unchanged in 22 years) or any other levy. In fact, he's not even proposing to increase the total amount the county will borrow over the next three referendum cycles. Instead, he aims to reallocate borrowing so that the share going to schools will increase from a historical average of about 37 percent to 59 percent. Consequently, the proposal would not bring the county any closer to its debt limit (its borrowing amounts to about half of what ratings agencies say is acceptable), will not increase debt service payments and should not require higher taxes.
What it does mean is that things like public works and parks won't get as big a share of future bond issues. Mr. Kamenetz proposes to make up for that, in as much as possible, by paying cash for their capital projects. But the upshot of arranging the county's finances this way is that the school funding will be available come what may, but money for other priorities may not.
Given the pressures caused by aging schools and increasing enrollment, that's appropriate. Mr. Kamenetz's proposal almost surely won't be the final answer to the county's need for more modern schools, but it represents a welcome shift away from a philosophy of patching up outdated buildings and toward providing facilities adequate to the needs of 21st century education.
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