The Maryland official who oversees public school construction has proposed to drastically cut back inspections of local school buildings, saying that the state does not have enough staff to keep up.
With hundreds of millions of state dollars each year invested in public schools, Maryland has had an aggressive program of inspections. State inspectors aim to visit more than 200 schools a year to check such things as roof condition, electrical and plumbing systems, the upkeep of grounds, recreational equipment and fire safety.
Any problems are reported to the local superintendent with instructions to get them fixed.
David G. Lever, head of the state's Interagency Committee on School Construction, proposed Wednesday that the target for inspections be reduced from this year's 220 schools to 100 during the fiscal year that begins July 1. That would extend the time between inspections from once every six years to once every eight.
Lever floated the plan at Wednesday's meeting of the powerful five-member body that oversees the work. He said the agency cannot maintain the inspection schedule because of staffing problems.
"We're dealing with reality — the reality of getting the job done," he said. "It's been a struggle every year because of staffing issues."
Comptroller Peter Franchot, a member of the state Board of Public Works, which oversees the interagency committee, criticized the proposal. Franchot's spokesman Peter Hamm noted that Gov. Larry Hogan had budgeted for more employees.
"So with more maintenance inspection staff, someone wants the [state] to do less maintenance inspecting?" Hamm said. "The comptroller thinks this is a dumb idea, and it has safety implications for our kids."
The board deferred action on the proposal at the request of a Hogan representative on the interagency committee.
Doug Mayer, a spokesman for the Republican governor, said Wednesday that Hogan included in his budget money for three more employees for the agency, including one for school inspections.
Lever, the longtime director of the agency that doles out state school construction dollars to local school boards, plans to leave his post Sept. 1. He resigned in protest of a Board of Public Works decision to press Baltimore city and county to use their school construction dollars to install window air conditioners. Lever said that decision politicized the process.
Hogan reacted to Lever's resignation by saying he wished he were leaving earlier. Hogan and Franchot, both members of the Board of Public Works, have pushed for the portable air conditioners.
Maryland is among a handful of states that play a major role in financing the construction of local public schools.
The state holds sway over local school systems and how they address problems with their buildings because it decides which school capital projects receive funding.
Lever said the agency also compiles a "report card" for each local board that is delivered to the General Assembly and the public works board, which is composed of the governor, the comptroller and the state treasurer.
Increasing the time between inspections would allow the agency to reduce its school inspections to 100 next year. The agency initially adopted a target of 233 annual inspections in 2007, an amount that was reduced to 220 in 2013.
Lever said the agency's inspections office normally has a staff of four — two inspectors, a program manager and an administrative aide. His deputy, Joan Schaefer, said one of the inspectors is retiring and the other is on leave.
Meanwhile, the program director's job is vacant, Schaefer said.
Lever, who has been in the job for 13 years, said that to maintain the pace of 220 inspections each year, inspectors would have to schedule two a day with travel time and follow-up paperwork.
"We think this is beyond the limits of human endurance," he said.
Lever said inspections can last up to 31/2 hours at elementary schools and a day or longer at high schools.
Lever said that when the agency gets behind in inspections, a "snowballing effect" means that work cannot be completed until the next school year.
The result, according to the agency staff, is that annual reports to the public works board and the legislature have been delayed. Lever said the report for the budget year that ended June 30, normally due in October, is still being compiled.
In other action, the agency decided to hire an interim director for eight to 12 months on a contractual basis when Lever retires. Former state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a committee member, said a legislative commission is studying the structure and mission of the agency and could recommend changes that affect the executive director's job.
Hoffman said the interim hire would fill that position through the 2017 legislative session. She said it would be unfair to hire a permanent director when the legislature might change the job description next year.