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Finding a fairer way to build Md.'s schools


DURING THE recent campaign, candidates for state offices clamored to get aboard the education bandwagon. But one key issue was hardly touched: The need for reform of the state's politicized, inequitable and inadequate public school construction program.

Does this description unfairly taint a program that has poured more than $1 billion into schools over the past decade and has been acclaimed as among the most progressive in the nation? I don't think so.

During his campaign, Gov. Parris N. Glendening hailed each subdivision's share from this year's $230 million program, the largest in more than 20 years. In fact, Mr. Glendening nearly doubled funding for school construction compared with Gov. William Donald Schaefer's last term. As funding has soared, however, political deal making related to the process has increased.

This is abetted by the tendency in recent years for the Board of Public Works, which allocates the funds, to defer a sizable portion of allocations until after General Assembly sessions. During sessions, allocations are a bargaining chip between the governor, who dominates the Board of Public Works, legislators and local officials.

The state agency that administers the program is highly respected. But the governor has a fairly free hand to play because state law places few restrictions on the allocation process.

This year's allocations to Montgomery ($50 million) and Baltimore ($28 million) counties were perceived as pivotal in the strong early endorsements Mr. Glendening received from County Executives Douglas M. Duncan and C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

The city, on the heels of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's support of Eileen M. Rehrmann, a Glendening primary challenger, initially received $12.5 million, later raised by $5 million after pleas for more from the city school board.

In prior years, the governor trolled for votes for stadiums, "smart growth" and other priorities, using school construction projects as bait.

The city has historically gotten a grossly inequitable share. Despite having 13 percent of the state's public school enrollment and probably the most rundown facilities (a recent consultant's report says city schools need at least $600 million in improvements), the city received about 7 percent of all state construction aid between fiscal years 1991 and 1999.

Some state officials say that the city hasn't tried hard enough politically or fiscally. They say that city officials have chosen other priorities for state aid, such as downtown projects and operating funds for schools.

City partisans claim low requests are caused by the city's inability to afford the local matching funds the state requires. The state formula for matching funds is progressive but it doesn't come close to equalizing differences in districts' ability to pay.

In addition, many construction-related costs aren't covered, such as architectural and engineering fees, pushing the city's share of large projects to 40 or 50 percent.

Deficiencies in the program are no secret. In a 1997 report, the state Department of Legislative Services urged the use of a strict formula for allocating funds, the defining of statutory priorities and the distribution of more funds before legislative sessions.

A provision in the city-state school funding settlement two years ago reduces the city match to 10 percent for the first $10 million per year. Otherwise, though, little attention has been paid to the basic issue of equalization.

Failure to reform Maryland's program will invite legal challenges. At least four states -- Texas, Arizona, Ohio and New Jersey -- have been found in violation of the education clauses in their constitutions because of inadequate school facilities.

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick testified in a court deposition two years ago that good school facilities are an essential component of an adequate education. The good news is that Mr. Glendening, to his credit, has pledged $500 million for school construction over the next two years.

The better news would be commitments from state leaders that the money will be more equitably allocated than in the past.

Kalman R. Hettleman, an education consultant, writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 12/01/98

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