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New high schools to be delayed after state bill fizzles, Baltimore County executive says

New high schools to be delayed after state bill fizzles, Baltimore County executive says
County Executive John Olszewski Jr. visited Lansdowne High School to tour its aged facilities and ramp up support for state school construction funding on April 1. (Libby Solomon/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

After a $2 billion school construction bill stalled in the Maryland Senate at the end of the 2019 legislative session, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said new school buildings on the county’s wish list will be delayed at least a year.

“There is no plan B,” Olszewski said Tuesday, the day after Sine Die, the last day of the legislative session.

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“I am disappointed that we did not get the school construction funding that was so desperately needed,” Olszewski said. “It’s unfortunate our students will not have the school facilities that they deserve as a result of the legislation’s failure.”

In recent weeks, Olszewski came out in strong support of the Build to Learn Act, a bill introduced in the House that would have authorized more than $2 billion in 30-year Maryland Stadium Authority bonds for school construction.

The county executive toured Lansdowne High School last week to draw attention to the aging school and bolster public support for the bill.

Lansdowne is not the only school advocates want to rebuild. Community members at Towson and Dulaney high schools, like Lansdowne, have said for years that the problems with those facilities — brown water, sinking foundations, overcrowded classrooms and more — are too dire to repair or renovate.

County officials have estimated the cost of building new high schools at more than $100 million each — a cost Olszewski said would be hard to swallow for Baltimore County, which is facing down a nearly $81 million deficit next fiscal year.

The Build to Learn Act passed 133-3 in the House, but got stuck in committee in the Senate and never made it to the floor. When the session ended, the bill’s chance of becoming law did too.

Olszewski said during the Lansdowne tour that if the bill did not pass, “we’ll have to take a good hard look at what we can afford.” But after the bill’s failure, he was unequivocal: without state money, the county can’t afford to build.

The state typically foots half the bill for school construction, Olszewski said. If that money is not available, “we don’t have ability to fund the state’s portion,” he said.

The county executive said there is a chance the county will be able to claim a larger share of funding from the Interagency Commission on School Construction, a state board that doles out money for school capital projects. That could allow the county to “potentially” move forward on one project. But Olszewski said he is “not banking on that.”

Olszewski is set to present his first budget to the County Council next week. After the Build to Learn Act’s failure, however, he said the accelerated timeline he had hoped for the new high school buildings will not be in it.

Phoebe Evans-Letocha, an advocate for Towson High School, said a year delay is another year in which trailers replace classrooms in the increasingly overcrowded high school.

“I’m disappointed, in that there really should have been more bipartisan support and cooperation for school construction both within Baltimore County as well as at the state level,” Evans-Letocha said. “The House of Delegates got their act together, but the Senate failed. And they failed our children.”

Delegates Michele Guyton and Steve Lafferty said Monday that if the construction bill did not pass, they expected it would come back around next year. Olszewski said he hopes that is the case.

“These projects will be delayed for the following year because of the bill’s failure,” Olszewski said. “I’m hoping it’s only a year. Because our kids can’t wait.”

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