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Politics

Assembly proposes more school construction aid for counties

Baltimore County and other high-growth suburban jurisdictions would receive extra state money to alleviate school overcrowding under an initiative announced Friday in Annapolis.

Flanked by delegates and senators from the five counties that would benefit, House Speaker Michael E. Busch said budget leaders have come up with $20 million to help build, expand or renovate schools. Counties would have to match the new funding.

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Anne Arundel, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties would also get money next year. The aid is aimed at school systems with more than 300 portable classrooms over the past five years or with enrollment greater than 150 percent of the statewide average. Dorchester and St. Mary's counties likely would qualify by 2019.

Baltimore County would get $4.2 million, which school system officials said would fund projects at overcrowded elementary schools. They did not identify them.

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"It gives the county executive a little more flexibility to meet his $1.1 billion goal" for school construction, said Del. Steve Lafferty, a Democrat who chairs the Baltimore County delegation. He noted that the county has the second-oldest school buildings in the state after Baltimore City.

The state's larger metropolitan counties have been clamoring for additional state help with their school construction needs since Baltimore city won legislative approval of a $1.1 billion school renovation and construction program in 2013.

Committees in the House and Senate have included the new program in their revisions to the proposed capital budget. Warren Deschenaux, the General Assembly's chief analyst, said the legislature's plan includes more bonds than Gov. Larry Hogan's but remains within the state's borrowing limits.

The new money would come on top of the $280 million that Hogan allocated for statewide school construction. After next year, the governor would be required to include the added $20 million in future capital budgets.

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said the governor has "definite concerns about the plan," primarily the lawmakers' use of future bond revenue to fund it.

Local officials were more pleased.

"Baltimore County is prepared to match this funding with shovel-ready projects that will further upgrade our school buildings, ease overcrowding and provide a boost to the local economy with construction jobs," said County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

The largest beneficiary under the plan would be Montgomery County, with $5.8 million. Prince George's County would receive $4.8 million, Anne Arundel $3 million and Howard $2 million.

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Bob Mosier, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel school system, said the added money would help improve the students' educational environment.

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"With a $2 billion infrastructure backlog, we would clearly benefit from any additional funding of our capital projects," he said. "It is too early to say at this point what specific projects would be impacted. But anything from gym and kindergarten additions to open-space classroom enclosures to roof projects have the potential to benefit from this funding."

Busch said the plan, part of the state capital budget for next year, had been developed by legislative leaders. It is considered likely to survive in the budget document the General Assembly delivers to the governor for his signature.

The cry for more school construction funding has been especially loud from Montgomery, where enrollment growth has pushed thousands of children out of school buildings and into portable units. The legislation creating the $20 million fund within the capital budget is sponsored by two Montgomery lawmakers, Del. Sheila Hixson and Sen. Nancy King.

"It is imperative that we provide healthy learning environments for all of our public school students," King said. "Jurisdictions that attract more students shouldn't be disadvantaged in meeting that goal."

Del. Adrienne Jones, the Baltimore County Democrat who heads the capital budget subcommittee, said the plan would not involve new borrowing. But legislative staffers said the money comes from expected revenues that otherwise would have been directed to paying down debt.

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mdresser@baltsun.com

egreen@baltsun.com


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