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School construction may shift Board to draft plan to give county some authority; Problems cost $8 million; Tight budgets spur consideration of bold move


The Anne Arundel County school board agreed yesterday to help draft a plan that could make it the first county school board in Maryland to turn over some of its construction authority to the county government.

The board voted unanimously to name a delegation to work with a county administration group to work out within 30 days a proposal for the takeover.

School officials have been embarrassed by construction problems that have cost taxpayers $8 million in the past two years. County Executive John G. Gary said he cannot guarantee that the county would do a better job or save money but that the county has a better track record than the school system does. And he offered to let the schools keep any money saved.

"I don't have my eyes on that money," Mr. Gary said in a rare appearance before the board.

The move marked the first time school officials had agreed to a consider such a bold stroke. They quickly rebuffed Robert R. Neall when, as county executive, he suggested two years ago that services be consolidated.

School and county officials said it was strictly a matter of tight budgets and dwindling state and federal money that brought them to the table this time. But Mr. Gary, who campaigned last year on a county takeover of the school construction program, made it clear that he is in charge.

"The school board has a lot of needs," he said. "I am the only one who can solve their needs. In return, you're seeing this cooperation right now for this issue."

He warned board members, however, that he could not support cost overruns and costly mistakes. "I can't be your sugar daddy. I don't have the money," he said.

Mr. Gary said the county government's greater resources -- an large public works department, a planning staff and inspectors -- could help the school system by acting as a general contractor.

The school system has a six-person staff to oversee construction, and the executive said many of them would be needed to tell the county staff what they want for how many students and where. Mr. Gary said he would devote an "A-team" of about the same size strictly to school construction. Once a project was funded, the county government would work on it until it was ready to hand over the keys to the school system.

"If we try it and it works, we all look like heroes. If we try and we fail, I look like a fool," Mr. Gary said.

He first proposed that the county assume the job for a year or two, but board members were wary. Even after their vote, they said they wanted to see a detailed proposal.

"We are willing to look at anything that can improve not just our funding, but provide an economy of scale," said Joseph Foster, board president.

"There's a lot of loose ends," said board member Thomas Twombly. "I've got to see his proposal."

There are other issues. Such a move would require a change in state law. Under current law, the board is the only entity that can issue school construction contracts. And the county's legislative delegation has not warmed to Mr. Gary's idea.

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