Arundel officials lobby for school funding, make the case for Severna Park High

County Executive Laura Neuman, House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch, state Sen. Edward Reilly and other Anne Arundel County lawmakers joined school officials this week in petitioning the state Board of Public Works for more funding for school projects, namely $25 million to begin reconstruction for Severna Park High School.

At the so-called beg-a-thon for statewide school money, state comptroller and Public Works board member Peter Franchot read from emails he'd received that depicted Severna Park High as "unsafe, unhealthy for children … and literally falling apart."

Although the letters supported the call for the school's replacement, Franchot asked school officials why the facility had sunk to such conditions and questioned the district's construction priorities.

The coalition said some of the assertions in the emails were exaggerated and invited Franchot to Severna Park to see for himself. Neuman and school officials said they left the meeting confident the united front had served their intentions.

"My first differentiation between this year and prior years — and I've been involved in this for two decades now — is the unity," said Alex Szachnowicz, the county schools' chief operating officer. "For many years, you haven't seen the school system come to the Board of Public Works meeting with the level of support, the county shoulder to shoulder, the delegation shoulder to shoulder."

The school system's overall $37.6 million request Wednesday came after Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget proposal for fiscal year 2015 included an $18.8 million state contribution toward Anne Arundel school projects — and made no provision for the $25.2 million the school system had sought for the Severna Park replacement school.

O'Malley, Franchot and state Treasurer Nancy Kopp make up the Board of Public Works, which heard petitions Wedmesday for school construction funding from districts across the state.

Anne Arundel officials said the Severna Park High replacement project will cost $134 million total. The school system has about $26 million for the project and is counting on $25.2 million from the state and $24.7 million from the county to get it started.

"While finite resources command hard decisions, we sincerely believe we are all on the same team and these decisions will be an ardent endorsement for the nearly 79,000 students in our district," said Anne Arundel interim Superintendent Mamie Perkins. "We must not overlook our school system as a vital contributor to the economic stability of Anne Arundel County and the state of Maryland."

Neuman has said the county receives less state funding for school construction on a per-pupil basis than Howard County and Baltimore City schools, despite having the state's third-highest enrollment over five years. She said 64 percent of the county's capital budget goes to school construction.

On Wednesday, she reiterated aims to work with school system officials to secure funding for a district facing a maintenance backlog of more than $1.5 billion.

"You have very difficult decisions to meet the school facility needs of 24 jurisdictions, but for our part, Anne Arundel County has funded more than 77 percent of the school construction costs over the past 10 years, and 59 percent of our capital spending is dedicated to school construction," Neuman said.

Neuman said her office had received "hundreds of letters, more than I could print" from Severna Park residents expressing the need for the new school.

Franchot responded with the correspondence he said came from Severna Park families, including at least one teacher and some students, with complaints of things such as no air conditioning, boarded-up windows, falling roofs and cockroaches.

He called Szachnowicz "the best chief operating officer in the state," but then asked, "How did you let the school get into this kind of condition?"

"Some of the statements that are made regarding the school are exaggerated somewhat," Szachnowicz said. "We do have a very balanced approach. That balanced takes into account taking care of our old structure, with Severna Park being a 55-year old school. …

"We have invested as much money as possible into that. But we have that to balance that with growth. We believe that we are evenly distributing all those resources" across the district, he said.

Szachnowicz invited Franchot to "walk through Severna Park ... so you can make your own observations."

O'Malley said over eight years, the state has increased school construction funding "to record levels," and over that time Severna Park High School has moved up the priorities list.

"You all bring us the list. [Severna Park High School] has never been, to my knowledge, skipped on the list," O'Malley said. "Every time you bring us the list we fund the priorities in the order that the county gives us the list. You're getting a lot closer now, which is great."

Del. Steve Schuh, a Republican from Gibson Island who was also part of the coalition, has argued that Severna Park should have been placed higher on the priorities list.

Schuh, a candidate for county executive this year, said earlier he was confident the school would receive some funding during one of the rounds of revenue requests. Franchot agreed, but also questioned why the school wasn't initially listed as a higher priority.

Szachnowicz said the priority order was selected by an independent firm contracted to examine facilities throughout the county.

"The parties entered into that agreement, they have basically stuck to it," Szachnowicz said. "It has provided a tremendous amount of predictability and it demonstrates that Severna Park High School has moved up sequentially year after year."

The Board of Public Works will likely decide in the next several weeks whether to add to O'Malley's initial funding level.

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