school building under construction

Baltimore County School Construction—What Happened?

by Liz Brown.

The Maryland General Assembly legislative session adjourned Monday night, finishing with the usual rollercoaster of last-minute legislating but also mourning the death of House Speaker Mike Busch, who passed away Sunday.

This week is now filled with the usual post-mortems of what bills passed, what bills did not pass, and what exactly happened. We at Forward Baltimore look back to see how our County fared during the state legislative season.

The most egregious example of a loss for Baltimore County is the failure of the General Assembly to pass the “Build to Learn Act” (Bill # HB727). This legislation would have authorized $2 billion in 30-year Maryland Stadium Authority bonds for school construction. Baltimore County would have received $400 million for school construction projects.

Many Baltimore County residents are aware of the deplorable state of Dulaney High School, which the Baltimore Sun reported just days ago had heightened lead levels in 4 drinking taps, and Lansdowne High School, plus the overcapacity issues with Lansdowne and Towson High School. Indeed, some legislators campaigned on the need for new facilities for these schools. Baltimore County residents may also be aware of the $80 million budget deficit that John Olszewski (“Johnny O”) inherited when he took office as Baltimore County Executive.

The Assembly did pass a $850 school-funding bill to cover recommendations brought forward by the Kirwan Commission—-certainly a win for education. However, these funds do not cover school construction. As State Senator Chris West wrote on his Facebook page on April 4, 2019, “…it is unacceptable for us to end up in a situation in which well-trained and well-paid teachers  are standing in classrooms that are egregiously overcrowded and un-air conditioned, with water leaking through the ceilings due to serious structural problems with the buildings and with water fountains dispensing brown water. We need Kirwan, but we also need new schools.

So what happened? The usual process for a successful bill is first to be considered in a committee, which will pass the bill with a favorable recommendation out of the committee and onto the floor to be voted on. (Read a more detailed version of the legislative process). The Build to Learn Act passed the House 133-3, then went to the Senate, where it remained in the Budget and Taxation Committee. The bill never received any kind of report, favorable or otherwise.

In the meantime, Baltimore County Council members were unanimously lobbying for the Bill’s passing, along with Johnny O, who toured Lansdowne High School last week to drum up awareness and support.

How did this happen? Why did the bill succeed in the House of Delegates but stall in the Senate?? In the same Facebook post from April 4, Senator West reported that “the Budget & Tax Committee has reached at least a tentative decision to not bring the bill to the floor because the money that would be used to pay the interest on the bonds would diminish the money available to pay for Kirwan.” Is this what the Budget and Taxation Committee ultimately concluded?

The Baltimore Sun reported yesterday, April 10, 2019, that Baltimore County high school construction will now be delayed. “There is no Plan B,” the Sun quoted Johnny O as saying on Tuesday, the day after the Legislature adjourned. The article also includes a quote from Phoebe Evans-Letocha, an advocate for Towson High School: “The House of Delegates got their act together, but the Senate failed. And they failed our children.”

The failed bill affects more than just high schools. For example, Councilwoman Cathy Bevins announced today on her Facebook page that work scheduled to begin on a replacement school for Red House Run Elementary, a new elementary school on Ridge Road and a new middle school at Nottingham Park are now delayed for at least a year.

But why did this happen? How did the bill succeed in the House but not in the Senate?

Did the Baltimore County Senate Delegation as a whole just not consider fixing crumbling schools a priority and fail to advocate as strongly as a delegation as was needed? Did funding the Kirwan Commission recommendations drain what was needed away from school construction—in which case, maybe more coordination was needed among the different kinds of school legislation to make sure all the needs were met?

Or, was this just bad timing to count on major state school construction funding the same year as the Kirwan recommendations?

And what happened with other counties that were also counting on this school construction funding? The bill covered funding to the other Maryland counties as well.

We obviously have more questions at the moment than answers!






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