Locals seeking less school construction money
Next year's $264 million package of school construction money, approved yesterday by the Board of Public Works, contained signs of financial strife in the counties, state officials said.
Charles and Wicomico counties are so strapped that they couldn't accept a total of $12 million for construction projects that are already well under way. And other counties had to say no to smaller upgrades.
But perhaps even more troubling, according to David G. Lever, director of the state's Public School Construction Program, is a years-long pattern of county officials seeking less and less money. He said the drop in requests likely reflects inability to pay the local share of projects.
Here's what the 23 counties and Baltimore City have requested from the state recently:
Fiscal Year 2006: $593 million for 252 projects
FY07: $730 million for 410 projects
FY08: $894 million for 402 projects (peak)
FY09: $871 million for 326 projects
FY10: $766 million for 283 projects
FY11: $729 million for 251 projects
FY12 (begins July 1): $612 million for 244 projects
(Photo of vacant land in Waldorf where St. Charles High School is to be built. By Sun photographer Barbara Haddock Taylor)
Though requests are declining, Lever said, "the need across the state is as enormous as ever."
In 2004, a state commission found $3.85 billion in necessary school construction and renovation. Lever said if the same survey were done today, his agency estimates those needs now amount to $5 billion, in part because of escalating construction costs.
Lever said to have Charles and Wicomico counties delay state funding for buildings that are already well on their way was "unprecedented" and "a real bellwether of the economy."
Charles officials are worried they won't have the tax base to support operation of the St. Charles High School once it is built. Perhaps they are mindful of the "Three Cups of Tea" problem; a charity built dozens of new schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but local leaders don't have the money to staff many of them. They're called "ghost schools."
The problem in Wicomico, officials there said, is coming up with the local capital match. They hope to round up enough money to resume construction in fiscal year 2013.
It's also worth noting that a $24 million chunk of FY12 construction money is actually FY11 money that didn't get used.
All of this comes at a time when Maryland is about to hike the sales tax on alcohol -- in part to pay for school construction.
Beginning July 1, if Gov. Martin O'Malley signs as expected, sales tax on alcohol will jump from 6 to 9 percent. Nearly $48 million generated by the tax next year will be earmarked for school construction.
Baltimore City and Prince George's and Montgomery counties get the most, $9 million each, while Western Maryland counties share $750,000 and the Eastern Shore counties divvy up $1.25 million.