Big boost sought for school construction

The Baltimore Sun

Even as county leaders brace for dwindling county and state revenues, the Anne Arundel County Board of Education is asking for $189 million for school construction and renovations, nearly $60 million more than the County Council funded last year.

The school system's request sets the stage for another fiscal face-off with the county government and is virtually certain to result in substantial cuts, considering that next year's financial forecast is gloomier than the one the county wrangled with last spring, two council members told the board at a meeting this week.

"You have a tough job, we understand that, and so do we. We can't do everything for everyone," said Edward Middlebrooks, vice chairman of the County Council, who attended the meeting with colleague Cathy Vitale. "You all know that I don't favor passing massive tax increases to our citizens to fund these projects. But maybe there are some other revenues that can be freed up."

For the 2009 fiscal year, which will start July 1, the school board unanimously approved Wednesday the capital budget, a wish list of 39 items. The board said the request reflects growing g needs, including a $1.5 billion maintenance backlog, outdated "open space" schools that need walls and partitions between classrooms, and renovations to accommodate state-required all-day kindergarten classrooms.

The school board voted to spend $12 million to address the maintenance increase - which includes expensive repairs for aging heating and cooling systems, buckling roofs and warped floor coverings - up from Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell's initial recommendation of $8 million.

Board members also decided to spend $5 million, instead of Maxwell's suggested $3 million, to put up partitions in open-space schools. Popular in the 1970s, such schools have been criticized as distracting, especially for students with attention disorders.

The board's vote followed nearly an hour of testimony from parents, staff and government officials who lobbied for such things as playground equipment and drastic renovations at decades-old buildings.

Annapolis city council members Sheila M. Finlayson, Classie Gillis Hoyle and Ross Arnett pressed the board to keep modernizing Annapolis schools atop their priority list, and Middlebrooks and his wife told the board of the need for a gym at their daughter's school, Quarterfield Elementary.

Pat Neidhardt, chairwoman of Broadneck High School's science department, said parts of her school are outdated, with some science classes held in an open space designed as art rooms.

With no walls dividing spaces, noise drifts from one class to another, and lab space is scarce. Despite the conditions, Neidhardt said, the school has had some of the highest scores on state biology exams. It is home to a state biology teacher of the year and has snared top awards in the county science fair for the last two years.

"Think of the message of encouragement the renovation would send to these teachers and students," Neidhardt said. "I retire this year after 41 years of teaching, I can think of nothing that would make me happier than to know that this school will be well taken care of after I'm gone."

School board member Victor E. Bernson said he supports the capital budget request but told his colleagues that increasing money for open-space schools and for the maintenance backlog could mean other projects won't get funded.

"They cut our request by $20 million last year, and now we're asking for about $60 million more. There are going to be some people who say, 'There they go again, with pie-in-the-sky,'" he said. "We need to go into this with our eyes open."

Bernson, a fiscal conservative, said, "I hope we can see some corresponding cuts on the operating side, if we're raising the capital side by $60 million."

During the budget process in the spring, county government officials criticized the district for making too many demands without sacrifices. When County Executive John R. Leopold suggested that the schools administration was bloated, Maxwell responded that county government officials didn't understand the school system's needs and that the system was "at a tipping point" after years of being underfunded.

Vitale said she had hoped for greater collaboration on priorities for school construction and renovation, especially because the two bodies will discuss the budget Monday.

"I thought it was interesting that you all are voting on a budget that we're going to talk about on Monday," Vitale said. "I had hoped we could be more participants than be lectured at."

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