Gov. Larry Hogan said Wednesday that he plans to summon local school systems to Annapolis in October to explain their requests for construction money — a significant change from the way the money has been awarded in the past.
Hogan said this "much-needed change" is an adjustment that will improve transparency and help top officials get a handle on school funding requests earlier in the process. But some worried that the move would increase the politicization of the process instead.
In the current process, school systems send their requests for construction money to an independent panel, the Interagency Committee on School Construction, in October.
That committee reviews the requests and makes recommendations on which projects should be funded. After the first of the year, the Board of Public Works hears from school systems that want to appeal the decisions and ask for more money or additional projects to be funded.
"The Board of Public Works, which has the final authority on the state school construction funding, doesn't even see the requests until January, after the fact. And that makes no sense whatsoever," Hogan said.
The state's powerful Board of Public Works reinstated $10 million of school construction money for Baltimore City and Baltimore County Wednesday, after the school districts presented plans to install air conditioning in overheated classrooms.
"It is unacceptable that the chief fiscal officers of the state who are in charge of this authority and responsibility do not have any opportunity to evaluate school construction requests prior to the submission of the school construction budget," he said.
Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, a Democrat who sits on the Board of Public Works with Hogan, cautioned that the funding process for school construction needs to remain "as nonpolitical as possible." However, she said, greater transparency is "always welcome."
The third member of the Board of Public Works, Comptroller Peter Franchot, endorsed the governor's move.
"I couldn't be happier about the change," said Franchot, a Democrat who often aligns himself with Hogan, a Republican.
Funding for school construction has become a heated topic in Maryland in recent years, pitting the Democrat-led General Assembly against Hogan, a Republican.
The legislature tried to end the appeals process at the Board of Public Works, often referred to as a "begathon." Lawmakers previously put language in the state's budget in an attempt to halt the begathon, but Hogan has relied on an opinion from the board's counsel saying that the board could continue to ask for information from school superintendents.
State Sen. Bill Ferguson said he worries that Hogan's move could undercut the Interagency Committee on School Construction's nonpartisan analysis of school construction needs. A member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, Ferguson has been outspoken on education issues.
"I'm very concerned that the Board of Public Works may be pulling an election-year stunt around school construction funding in a way that potentially could disrespect the deep facility needs we have for our public schools across the state," the Baltimore Democrat said. "I hope I'm wrong."
Sen. Richard Madaleno, vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said the governor is meddling in a process that, while not perfect, has served taxpayers well.
"He is micromanaging so many aspects of education. He's already taken over the calendar, now he wants to take over the design of every school building," said Madaleno, a Montgomery County Democrat who is running for governor.
Robert A. Gorrell, the executive director of the Interagency Committee on School Construction, told the governor he would notify school superintendents to attend the Oct. 18 Board of Public Works meeting.
"We'll organize them to bring their requests," he said.