Gov. Larry Hogan is opposing a plan by Maryland's school construction chief to reduce the number of school maintenance inspections the state conducts each year.
David G. Lever, the soon-to-depart executive director of the Interagency Committee on School Construction, proposed the reduction this week. He said cutting the goal of 220 annual inspections to 100 reflects the “reality” of his agency's staffing problems.
The initial response from Hogan's office was that the governor would leave the matter to the committee, but on Thursday night he posted a statement on Facebook in which he joined Comptroller Peter Franchot in flatly rejecting the proposal.
“It's hard to understand how anyone, especially someone supposedly in charge of Maryland school construction, could think it's a good idea to do less school maintenance inspections,” Hogan wrote. “This is a very important issue. It's about the safety of our students.”
The governor’s opposition puts the fate of the proposal in serious doubt. While two of the committee’s five members are appointed by General Assembly leaders, two are Hogan appointees — General Services Secretary C. Gail Bassette and Planning Secretary David R. Craig. The fifth vote is held by Karen B. Salmon, the interim state superintendent of schools.
When Lever proposed the change to the five-member committee Wednesday, one of Hogan's appointees asked that a vote be deferred. The board agreed to hold a vote by teleconference next week.
Lever told the board that the agency has a backlog because it has only two inspectors — one is retiring and the other is on leave. The program manager position is vacant.
Hogan dismissed that contention.
“This is not an issue of staffing; over the last two budgets, we've increased the number of state employees working there,” he said. “I stand strongly with Comptroller Franchot on this issue; this is not the direction our state needs to go.”
Lever said Friday that the agency is “well aware” of the importance of inspections. He said the agency has kept up with inspections but has not had enough staff to produce follow-up reports.
The agency hopes to fill its vacancies soon, but doesn't want to rush. “We need very qualified people and it can be very difficult to find qualified people,” he said.
Lever's proposal calls for the agency to conduct 100 inspections in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. The number would increase to 185 annually, putting the agency on pace to inspect each school every eight years instead of its current goal of every six.
If the proposal is turned down, Lever said he's not sure what the agency can do. “We'll have to figure it out at that point,” he said.
Lever plans to leave his post Sept. 1. He charged that Hogan and Franchot politicized the process of allocating school construction money and resigned in protest. Hogan reacted by saying he was “pleased” and wished Lever would quit sooner.
Former Del. John Bohanan, who along with former Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman was appointed to the panel by the legislature, said it was an overreaction to portray the move as gutting the maintenance inspection program.
“Lever was basically saying, ‘Here’s the reality given the resources and the budget,’” said Bohanan, a Democrat who represented Southern Maryland. He said inspections should be discussed by a commission on school construction recently appointed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, both Democrats.
Busch said he would like to see a report from the committee members on how many employees are needed to maintain the inspection schedule.
“We have to find the appropriate level of staffing to get the work done,” he said. “If we can’t, it’s our fault.”
Hoffman, a Democrat who represented Baltimore in the Senate, said the matter is a “solvable” problem that could probably be fixed by hiring contract writers to chip away at the backlog of reports.
She said Lever’s proposal is likely an attempt to get problems straightened out for his successor.
“Until Dr. Lever’s gone, the governor is not going to be happy,” she said.