School construction apples and oranges [Editorial]

The county executives from Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties went to Annapolis today to present a united front in an effort to get the state to commit to a long-term, enhanced funding stream to help them build and renovate schools. Though they did not make it an explicit part of their pitch, the unmistakable subtext for lawmakers was the state's decision last year to commit to just such an arrangement with Baltimore City. If the state was willing to commit $20 million a year to support more than $1 billion in construction borrowing for the city, why not for three counties that together comprise 44 percent of the state's schoolchildren?

We certainly agree with Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker and Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett that school construction should be a top priority and that their three counties have significant needs based on growing enrollments and aging buildings. That said, there are some key differences between their situation and the city's — and between the way the city went about building support for its program and what they have done so far — that should give lawmakers pause before jumping behind this idea.

As much as those three jurisdictions have need of modernized schools, the scope of the problem is entirely different in Baltimore City, where two different analyses identified more than $2 billion in needs and where it had become clear that the state was throwing good money after bad by putting Band-Aids on crumbling buildings. Moreover, Baltimore City, because of its high poverty rate, high tax rates and profusion of tax-exempt property, had far less capacity than those three suburban jurisdictions to do something on its own.

Even so, Baltimore City officials didn't just show up in Annapolis one day, hat in hand. Their proposal was the product of years of work by education activists and, eventually, then-schools CEO Andrés Alonso and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Mr. Alonso accompanied his request with a controversial plan to close dozens of schools and realign the district's facilities to meet its current and future needs. Ms. Rawlings-Blake came forward with a plan to dedicate a portion of Baltimore's future casino funds to school construction, and despite the fact that city residents already struggle under a much higher tax burden than the residents of Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties, she pushed through the City Council a new beverage container tax to provide additional funding. The city school district is dedicating a portion of its budget to the project, too. The state may be kicking in $20 million a year, but it's a minority partner in this venture.

Moreover, there is this: Baltimore City is more dependent on state aid than any other jurisdiction. Lawmakers from other parts of the state were willing to make an unprecedented commitment to school construction in Baltimore because they knew that if they ever want to stop subsidizing the city's operations so much, they need to be willing to support investments that make the city a more attractive place for people to live and invest. Constructing dozens of new or completely overhauled schools may be the single best way to accomplish that.

No doubt, Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties also have schools in need of replacement or repair. In Baltimore County, for example, 83 percent of schools are more than 40 years old, even after a record-setting $600 million investment in construction and renovations during the last three years.

However, these three counties have a vastly greater capacity to do something about the problem on their own — in fact, they already do by spending well in excess of the minimum for matching state construction funds. Yet there is reason to believe they have not reached their maximum effort in the way the city has. They are all much wealthier jurisdictions than the city, and their property tax rates are much lower. According to figures from the Department of Legislative Services, Montgomery County could raise an additional $2 billion (yes, billion with a "b") per year if it raised its property tax rate to the same level as Baltimore City. Baltimore County could raise another $830 million, and Prince George's more than $650 million. Baltimore County could raise another $80 million a year if it increased its piggyback income tax to the maximum rate of 3.2 percent.

No one would suggest they do anything so drastic, but the point is that they could easily produce another $20 million a year in revenue on their own without asking the state for help. In all three cases, it would require raising the property tax rate by less than 3 cents per $100 in assessed value.

All policy considerations aside, the bottom line for Baltimore City last year was that its delegation's votes for a transportation funding package (a major priority of Montgomery County) and for a new hospital for Prince George's County won it support for its school construction program. But even that would not have been enough if city officials hadn't brought forth had a well defined plan and demonstrated that they were willing to make politically difficult decisions of their own. Until the leaders of Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties can demonstrate the same commitment, they aren't going to get far in Annapolis.

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