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School board, county confer

The Baltimore Sun

A joint meeting intended this week to show Anne Arundel County government officials how school district leaders put together their extensive spending plan has eased some of the tensions held over from last spring's budget battle.

Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell and the school board urged a receptive County Council on Monday to put more of a "down payment" on school construction projects because failing to do so has cost them millions in state aid. Committing more money earlier for feasibility studies and design will help school officials make the best case possible for state matching funds, he said.

"We are not accessing to the degree that we could state funds because of the slowness of the process," Maxwell said. "This stop-start, stop-start is hurting us." Afterward, Maxwell said the three-hour workshop was "absolutely positive."

"This was very beneficial," Council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr. said afterward. "It was good to see the mechanics behind the capital and operating budgets. You don't get the opportunity during the budget season to digest how the numbers are reached."

In one sign of lingering strained relations, Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale's barrage of questions brought an implication of impatience directed at board member Eugene Peterson.

"Eugene, you can shake your head all you want; I want to try to understand this," Vitale said.

Peterson replied softly: "I wasn't shaking my head."

School and county leaders agreed in July to hold the workshop after months of clashes over how school money ought to be spent. Education leaders accused the local government, which cut $70 million from the school budget request of $941 million, of micromanaging education policy.

Lawmakers, who raised education funding more than 8 percent from the previous year, have charged the schools with making unrealistic requests to accommodate a fattened bureaucracy amid a financial downturn.

Relations were further frayed after the council in June withheld $3.9 million from a routine $22.8 million transfer sought by the school system. A month later, school officials, sensing little council support, pulled a request of $13.9 million.

"Last year on all sides, we could have done a better job on communicating," Maxwell said in his opening remarks.

On Monday, school officials talked about how they are bracing for about 1,700 additional students to enroll as a result of the base realignment and closure process at Fort Meade.

They told of how Department of Recreation and Parks programs are taking a toll on school facilities, adding to the 10-year, $1.5 billion school maintenance backlog, and they discussed demographic trends that have caused crowding at elementary schools while there is room to spare in middle schools and most high schools.

Vitale expressed surprise that the county was compounding some of the district's financial troubles by not pushing harder to get state school construction aid. Currently, the county funds a feasibility study to determine whether to renovate or replace a school, then waits until the next fiscal year to fund the planning study. School system officials said that Anne Arundel is the only jurisdiction in the state that uses that funding process and that it suggests a lack of willingness to push ahead on projects.

Council members responded that they set aside a $2.5 million fund this fiscal year for school feasibility and planning studies to show state officials they were committed to projects. Dillon said the establishment of the fund gives district officials the flexibility to study the overhauling of several schools, including Northeast High, whose cost to rebuild may exceed $90 million.

But, because "the money isn't allocated, the state can't see the money as available to a project," Maxwell said.

Vitale, a council member for eight years, recalled that the county used to be criticized for seeking too much money upfront.

"That change in philosophy hasn't been made public or understood by me," she said. "That would change how I would see a funding request."

Sun reporter Ruma Kumar contributed to this article.

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