School construction's strong foundation

A recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union has highlighted the large backlog of school facility deficiencies in Baltimore City. However, Baltimore's challenges should not obscure the vast facility needs of other school districts throughout Maryland, or their requirements for state funding assistance.

Maryland joins a handful of other states in recognizing that school construction is a statewide responsibility. By allocating $1.9 billion for school construction since 2005, including $1.3 billion allocated in the four years of the O'Malley administration, the state has demonstrated an unprecedented commitment to education during a time of economic hardship.

Despite these historic increases, our statewide needs still vastly exceed our resources. To equitably allocate scarce state funds, the Interagency Committee on School Construction, the body charged by the state Board of Public Works with management of the state's Public School Construction Program, bases its recommendations on a far broader set of factors than those addressed in the ACLU report.

We recognize the extent and gravity of school facility issues in Baltimore City, but we also acknowledge the seriousness of these issues in other jurisdictions. In Baltimore County, a systematic effort has been under way since the late 1990s to upgrade facilities that are nearly as old as those in Baltimore City; with almost all of its high schools still to be renovated, the district's funding requirements in the next five to 10 years will be enormous. Prince George's County Public Schools, also burdened with older facilities, is instituting broad educational reforms that will require significant capital improvements.

Anne Arundel County must address the impacts of changes at Fort Meade associated with the Base Realignment and Closure process, concurrent with an aggressive program to build kindergarten classrooms to meet the mandates of the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act of 2002 (better known as the Thornton law). And in Montgomery County, overcrowding has resulted in a number of schools where the area occupied by portable classrooms exceeds the area covered by the original school facility, significantly reducing the space available for outdoor activities.

Other school districts in Maryland also face capital needs ranging from new career and technology facilities designed to build contemporary skills, to renovating or replacing schools that are as dilapidated as those in Baltimore City, to the special challenges for facilities presented by declining student enrollments.

Baltimore City Public Schools has benefited from Maryland's exceptionally strong communication between the state and local jurisdictions. This is seen not only in the funding that has allowed major renovations at six schools and system upgrades and other improvements at 92 schools since 2005 but also in an intensive and unique partnership on issues of environmental safety, maintenance, project management and more.

The Comprehensive Educational Facilities Master Plan mentioned in the ACLU report is itself a product of this collaborative process. Due to a legacy of poor management, approved projects in the city often faltered for many years before construction began, tying up scarce funds that could have been used productively elsewhere in the state. Through the monitoring role of the Interagency Committee on School Construction and the leadership exerted by schools CEO Andrés Alonso and his staff, today almost all previously approved projects are under contract or about to be so. Our continuous involvement with the facility issues of the school system gives us a day-to-day awareness of the substantial improvements that the school system has made in facility management — but also of the enormous challenges that it still faces.

We welcome the exploration of alternative funding and financing mechanisms to supplement our own research in this field, as well as the signal accomplishments of several Maryland school districts since passage of legislation in 2004 that enabled alternative project procurement, delivery and financing. We have long held that the ability to provide more funding on a statewide basis will depend on the public's willingness to support this important area of public welfare.

A recent Sun editorial left readers with the misleading impression that Maryland's school construction funding is not equitable or based on need. On the contrary, the Interagency Committee and the Board of Public Works have promoted a process that — far from being "broken" or ignoring "different jurisdictions' needs or ability to pay," as stated in the Sun editorial — actually gives ample voice to the facility needs of individual school districts and the financial condition of local governments, and has over time resulted in an exceptionally equitable allocation of funds.

David Lever is executive director of the Interagency Committee on School Construction. His e-mail is dlever@msde.state.md.us. This article was written in collaboration with the following members of the Interagency Committee: state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick (chairwoman); Secretary Alvin Collins, Department of General Services; Secretary Richard Hall, Department of Planning; Tim Maloney (public member) and Fred Puddester (public member).

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