Education, Opinion, Politics

OPINION: For two years in a row, Annapolis blunders on school construction

The following is an op-ed piece from Fifth District Councilman David Marks.

It’s Groundhog Day all over again.

Baltimore County, like every other jurisdiction, has a long list of school construction projects. In my district, we desperately need to build the new northeastern middle and elementary schools, as well as the addition at Pine Grove Middle School. For two years in a row, Baltimore County has had all of its share of funding allocated in its budget for these schools—and for two years in a row, the Maryland General Assembly threw up obstacles.

In 2019, the Build to Learn Act passed the House of Delegates. This legislation has had several versions, but all provided hundreds of millions of dollars in school construction from gambling in one way or another. This initiative is also one of the rare education proposals to have commanding support across party lines.

Despite pleas from numerous stakeholders, the Senate’s leadership refused to pass the Build to Learn Act in 2019—likely because of pressure to deal with the Kirwan Commission recommendations.

In 2020, both chambers passed school construction legislation, but the Senate—once again—threw Kirwan into the mix. The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee unanimously passed a contingency amendment linking the school construction bill with the Kirwan funding legislation. The full Senate passed the bill unanimously on March 17. In other words, if the governor vetoed the Kirwan bill, the school construction legislation would not go into effect.

Many officials I spoke to over the past few days did not even know about this provision.

I am one of the rare Republicans who has supported elements of the Kirwan initiative, or the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. I have taught in public schools and appreciate the importance of investing in teachers and programs. I am continually amazed, however, with Kirwan advocates who brush off the urgency of rebuilding and constructing new schools. We might produce the best educators in the world—but do they want to teach in places, like Dulaney High School, where brown water comes out of the fountain?

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For all those legislators complaining that Governor Hogan vetoed the Kirwan bill—you should have known about the “poison pill” in the school construction legislation. Linking the two bills doomed both. Why could the Senate have not passed a “clean” bill?

The irony is, this is exactly when we should be building schools. In a poor economy, school construction projects produce badly-needed jobs. Had the Build to Learn Act passed the first time, we would already have bulldozers digging dirt and cranes laying steel.

As a local official, the lesson for me is clear. Baltimore County and other jurisdictions must prepare to go it alone, for the most part, cobbling together funding to construct as many schools as possible. We will use the normal funding we receive from the state, but not the infusion of cash that would have advanced a truly bold school construction initiative.

After all, Annapolis may make another blunder again in 2021.

– Councilman David Marks

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