In recent years, Maryland has flooded local school districts with construction money, allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to build schools and renovate aging classrooms.
But as a few big counties gain a larger share of the money, some critics charge that the system is growing political.
The shares of the three largest counties, including Baltimore County, have nearly doubled during the five years under Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
The shares of other counties -- Harford, Anne Arundel and Howard among them -- have shrunk substantially.
"Each year, we witness the same trend, the unfortunate intrusion of politics into the award of school construction money. Clearly, Montgomery County is vote-rich," said Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Republican who represents parts of Howard and Montgomery counties.
Glendening, a Democrat who dubs his administration the "golden age of school construction," says politics is not a factor in awarding the money. This year, more than $260 million will be allocated by the state.
Most observers agree that funding decisions are mainly based on need, enrollment growth, lobbying skills and a locality's ability to match state dollars. For example, Baltimore is hard pressed to come up with the matching money required to get the huge amounts of state funds that Montgomery receives.
But most also agree that politics plays a role.
Each year, local officials go to Annapolis to lobby the state Board of Public Works for more money in a session nicknamed "the beg-a-thon" by many participants. On Feb. 9, appeals ranged from Charles County's $427,000 request for help renovating an elementary school to Howard County's plea for an additional $36 million.
Process is complex
Allocating the money involves several steps. The Interagency Committee on School Construction, which is controlled by the governor, recommends how the money should be divided. The three-member Board of Public Works -- Maryland's governor, treasurer and comptroller -- generally follows those recommendations but votes on allocations in two steps.
Most of the money is approved in January, but a large chunk -- $69 million this year -- is held back until the General Assembly session ends.
Aided by the economic boom, Glendening has boosted the amount of school construction money given to localities.
In the 1996-2000 budget years, $989 million was allocated by the state. In the previous five years, under Gov. William Donald Schaefer, also a Democrat, $422 million was allocated.
As overall state funding has increased, Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties have received a greater portion of the money.
In the past five years, those three large, urbanized counties have received 45 percent of the construction money. During the previous five years, their share was 25 percent. By contrast, the shares of Harford, Anne Arundel and Howard counties have shrunk to 13 percent from 22 percent during that period.
Howard officials say Glendening has been partisan in distributing the money and that their county has received less than it deserves.
Howard's legislative delegation includes Republican leaders of both houses of the General Assembly. They are Del. Robert H. Kittleman, a conservative who has often criticized the governor and his programs, and Sen. Martin G. Madden, a moderate. Howard's government, like Anne Arundel's, was dominated by Republicans from 1994 to 1998.
"In percentages, Howard County's best year under Glendening was worse than the worst year under Schaefer," Madden said.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat whose county has benefited the most in recent years, thinks supporting the governor has helped produce construction money.
"I think it's the same under Schaefer, Glendening and governors before that. They look and see who was supportive of their agenda. One of the rewards we've gotten is an increase," Duncan said. Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties have done well for three reasons, Glendening said.
"They've been very aggressive in rebuilding older schools," supporting his Smart Growth program to limit suburban sprawl, he said. "They've worked together as a team, and they've also supported our statewide efforts.
"For example, when I proposed we use the [budget] surplus in school construction, they stepped out in support of it. Others said cut taxes. You can't cut taxes and fund schools."
Glendening denies using school money to reward or punish localities based on politics. "I keep my focus on the children, teachers and the classroom. I will not allow someone else's hypocrisy to hurt the children," he said.
Although Howard officials say partisan politics has worked against them, other local leaders discount the impact of politics, even in Carroll County, where conservative Republicans dominate.
"Carroll County, I think, has received its fair share," said Sen. Larry E. Haines, one of Maryland's most conservative GOP leaders.
"I know we have not grown as much, but we haven't asked as much," said Harford Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican. Harford's enrollment increases have been much smaller in recent years, said school officials there.
Anne Arundel officials also have no complaints.
More for everyone
Gubernatorial spokesman Michael E. Morrill notes that every locality has received more money under Glendening, though some counties' shares have grown faster. For example, Howard County's share of the overall allocation has slipped over the past five years. But because the statewide total grew tremendously, Howard wound up with an extra $9 million.
Anne Arundel received an extra $16 million, and Harford got $2 million more.
Montgomery has been the big winner in recent years.
"We have the fastest enrollment growth in the state [3,000 new students a year]. That's the reason we received the increase," said Del. Kumar P. Barve, a Democrat who is chairman of Montgomery's house delegation.
Some of that money was repayment for the $80 million that Montgomery spent over the years when state funds were low but schools needed to be built. That debt is down to $10 million.
Much smaller Howard also put up $80 million over the years and is waiting for $32 million worth of reimbursement, officials there said. Howard officials have asked for $53 million in state funds for next year but hope merely to get more than this year's the $16 million.