Democratic leaders of Maryland’s General Assembly announced plans Wednesday to spend billions of dollars more on public school construction — at the same time they plan to significantly boost spending inside classrooms.
“This is a very big deal, honestly and truly, I would tell you if it wasn’t,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who was flanked by Democratic leaders at a now-closed elementary school in Prince George’s County.
The plan — dubbed the “Built to Learn Act” — would involve sending $2.2 billion extra to local governments to help pay for renovating and building schools. The money would come from bonds issued by the Maryland Stadium Authority. The bonds would be paid back over 30 years using $125 million a year in casino revenues set aside in a so-called education “lockbox.”
An identical measure sailed through the House of Delegates on a bipartisan vote in 2019, but stalled in the Senate and did not pass. Now both chambers, which have overwhelming Democratic majorities, are united in supporting the bill.
House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones previously announced a school construction bill would be her priority for the 2020 session. She said it would have the designation of “House Bill 1” to underscore its importance. Now, the companion legislation in the Senate will be numbered “Senate Bill 1.”
Jones said subpar school buildings contribute to achievement gaps in which poor and minority children don’t perform as well as richer and white peers. The Baltimore County Democrat said the boost in construction funding is “long overdue.”
“Every second we delay funding that will modernize school buildings, we deny our students an opportunity for a brighter future,” Jones said. “If we achieve nothing else as a General Assembly this term, we will uphold our commitment to making our schools the best in the nation.”
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, in a statement, touted his own school construction plan, which had many similarities to the Democrats’ plan but did not advance in the 2019 session. He dinged Democrats for being “a year late” to the issue.
“Now that our legislators are finally making school construction a priority, I certainly look forward to working with them to get it done,” said Hogan, adding that he intends to reintroduce a version of his plan in 2020.
Miller, Jones and other Democratic leaders said they also would find a way to pay for the expensive improvements in classroom education recommended by the state’s Kirwan Commission on education.
The commission, named for its chairman, former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan, is finalizing its recommendations for how to pay for expanding prekindergarten, offering more support to high-poverty schools, boosting career prep programs and increasing teacher salaries.
The commission envisions that by 2030, the state and local school districts combined would need to spend about $4 billion more per year than they currently do on public schools.
Democratic leaders would not say Wednesday how they would pay for those classroom improvements, including whether it would involve higher taxes — as Hogan has asserted would be the case.
Hogan has repeatedly blasted the commission’s work as “half-baked” and derided it as the “Kirwan Tax Hike Commission.” He declined an invitation to meet with the commission this fall.
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“We’re going to make school construction and school operating funds our number one priority,” said Miller, who hinted at “innovative ways” to fund both. He said he hoped to “bring the governor along."
Sen. Bill Ferguson of Baltimore, who has been nominated to succeed Miller as president when the next General Assembly session starts in January, would not directly answer a question about whether taxes would be raised.
“What we need to do is have a conversation about values,” Ferguson said. “It’s about what are our choices and what do we value most. In any budget year, there are choices that we make around the adequate and equitable funding.”
In Baltimore County, where at least three high schools are in need of replacement or significant renovations — with a price tag of more than $100 million each — County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. welcomed the possibility of an influx of state cash for school construction.
Olszewski had said school construction money was so important to Baltimore County that it was the only bill that he testified on and supported in the last session. After the bill failed, he said high school construction projects would need to be delayed by at least one year.
Olszewski praised state Democratic leaders “for taking up our fight” and said he is “confident that they will get the job done this year for communities across Maryland.”
The next 90-day General Assembly session starts Jan. 8.