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Johnny O: School construction can’t wait; override Hogan’s veto | COMMENTARY

From left, Steuart Pittman, Anne Arundel County Executive, Bernard C. "Jack" Young, Baltimore City Mayor, and John A. Olszewski Jr., Baltimore County Executive testify in support of the Kirwan education reform legislation in February.
From left, Steuart Pittman, Anne Arundel County Executive, Bernard C. "Jack" Young, Baltimore City Mayor, and John A. Olszewski Jr., Baltimore County Executive testify in support of the Kirwan education reform legislation in February.(Amy Davis)

When students can finally return to Landsdowne High School, they will be returning to a building that is sinking into the ground and where water surrounds the building when it rains. When they return to Dulaney High School, they will face the same brown drinking water that has poured from its water fountains for years. When they return to Summit Park Elementary School, or Red House Run Elementary School or Towson High School, they will return to outdated and severely overcrowded buildings and school sites overrun by trailers.

Baltimore County’s students and educators have already been forced to wait years for the safe, modern school buildings they need and deserve. Gov. Larry Hogan’s shortsighted veto of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future ensures that they will now be forced to wait even longer.

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The Blueprint legislation — developed in response to years of study and research by an esteemed panel of experts and policymakers — aimed to modernize Maryland’s education systems, ensure every child receives a world-class education and address long-standing and deeply rooted disparities. The governor claimed we cannot afford it because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the truth is he made it clear from the start that he would never support these reforms. Just a few months ago, he hosted a series of dark money fundraisers with one goal: to kill the Blueprint. Thankfully, the voices of students, educators and parents drowned out special interests as this historic piece of legislation passed.

The governor’s explanation also failed to acknowledge that lawmakers wisely provided fiscal security measures in the Blueprint, creating the flexibility Maryland needs to slow down the reforms in the event of economic crises like the one we face today. Choosing a hammer instead of a chisel means that our families will continue to wait for expanded access to pre-K and additional resources for our most vulnerable communities.

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But it gets worse.

Whether by design or mistake, in vetoing the Blueprint, Governor Hogan has also deprived Marylanders of critical school construction dollars provided by the Built to Learn Act — a bipartisan bill, overwhelmingly supported by the state legislature. Baltimore County alone was set to receive nearly half a billion dollars in desperately needed support to address our rapidly aging and insufficient school buildings.

I know firsthand how important a modern classroom is to creating a strong learning environment. As a teacher in trailer three at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts, I had to use a piece of plywood to cover a hole in the floor during my first year. In my second year, it was “fixed” by putting a metal plate in its place. That temporary “learning cottage” is still in use to this day. My experience as a teacher, an important factor in my decision to run for county executive, continues to drive my decisions in office and urges me to do everything we can for our kids.

During my two years in office, I appropriated the county’s full share of school construction funding. Baltimore County now has $250 million in essential funding that will allow us to make significant progress toward providing every student with a 21st Century school. But these shovel-ready projects are stuck at a standstill without the state paying their portion. Built to Learn would have provided that share, but with the stroke of a pen, the governor has forced our kids, educators and parents to wait even longer.

Even worse, these now-halted school construction projects would have created thousands of good-paying jobs across the state at a time when our families so desperately need them. Unemployment claims have skyrocketed as a result of the pandemic. So have applications for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. Our people are hurting. We need to be there for them now.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken our world to its core and so much remains uncertain. However, one thing is certain: education remains the key to a bright future, not just for each of our children, but for every neighborhood, every county and our entire state. The choice between smart investments in our kids and economic recovery is a false one. Investing in education, even in difficult times, may be one of the best ways to ensure we recover from this crisis — and to be prepared for the next one.

Marylanders should know exactly what this veto means for them: even longer waits for the school buildings and classroom resources they deserve. I encourage our lawmakers to do the right thing when they return and override this veto.

John “Johnny O” Olszewski Jr. (johnnyo@baltimorecountymd.gov), a former teacher, is the Baltimore County Executive. Twitter: @BaltCoExec.

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