Ocean City Today

School construction funding turns into political struggle

By Greg Ellison | Apr 05, 2018
Source: File Photo State Comptroller Peter Franchot said political maneuverings have removed elected officials oversight of school construction funding,

(April 6, 2018) A political power struggle played out in Annapolis this week as the General Assembly passed legislation that strips oversight of hundreds of millions of dollars in school construction spending from the Board of Public Works.

For the last 70 years the three-member Board of Public Works, currently comprised of Gov. Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp, have approved school renovations or construction projects statewide.

Franchot said the political maneuverings stem from Senate President Mike Miller (D-27) and House Speaker Michael Busch (D-Anne Arundel County) who grew frustrated over efforts by the Hogan administration to revamp oversight of school construction and improve maintenance of existing buildings.

“We have emphasized the maintenance of schools ... and its revolutionized the concept of the local jurisdiction taking care of what the state is paying for,” he said. “This is a huge benefit to the taxpayers, because it extends by decades the useful life of schools.”

Franchot said legislative leaders nerves became frayed by Hogan’s attempts to address schools with climate control deficiencies.

“They were working against the efforts of the governor and myself on the whole issue of school maintenance, and most of all cooling … the classrooms and heating the classrooms when appropriate.”

To further evidence the power rift, Franchot said legislators pulled a late-night power grab without holding public hearings.

“In the dead of night [legislators] put a poison pill amendment in the school construction reform bill that rips out from the Board of Public Works the jurisdiction and oversight that Gov. Hogan and I have spent a great deal of time prioritizing to the benefit of Maryland taxpayers,” he said.

The legislation would also increase the annual school construction budget, now at over $300 million, to about $400 million.

Most notably, the school construction reform bill would transfer approval of school construction spending to a reconfigured Interagency Committee on School Construction, which currently vets proposed renovations or projects, with the Board of Public Works having the final say.

The school construction committee is currently comprised of five members, including: the State Superintendent of Schools, the Secretary of General Services, the Secretary of Planning, along with one appointee each from the senate president and house speaker.

Under the proposed legislation, the committee would be reformed into a six-member body, consisting of two appointees each from the governor, senate president and house speaker.

“It is the same IAC [that’s] been there forever [and] does not do its job properly,” he said.

From Franchot’s perspective, legislative leaders’ rationale for handing over decision-making power to the Interagency Committee is clear-cut.

“It’s uncomfortable for the local elected officials to have oversight from the Governor and myself as to how good a job they’re doing with school maintenance,” he said. “It’s awkward for counties to have things such as sweltering classrooms during warm days, where teachers are fainting and students are getting sick from the heat.”

Franchot said the proposed restructuring is “an assault upon good government,” and removes authority from elected officials who are held accountable by constituents.

“They are transferring it to some out of sight back room group of bureaucrats and lobbyists,” he said. “It’s a travesty as far as transparency, accountability and honesty in government.”

Although Hogan has vetoed the bill, Franchot said the Senate currently has the minimum 29 votes required to override the governor’s decision.

“If one of those 29 votes changed … the governor’s veto would be sustained [and] they could pass the bill on increased funding almost immediately because it has such broad support,” he said.

Franchot accused Miller of legislating a personal grudge.

“They were bold enough to say we’re doing it because we’re mad at the governor and the comptroller,” he said. “This was a cynical, political game being played and the losers are the Maryland taxpayers, … kids who have to go to these schools …  and parents who have to worry about their kids.”

Carrie Sterrs, coordinator of public relations for Worcester County Schools, said administrators are closely monitoring the outcome in the General Assembly.

“We can’t predict at this juncture how it would impact Worcester County Public Schools. However, we are keeping a close eye on the outcome of the proposed legislation,” she said.

Regardless of the outcome, Franchot said the topic is likely to be a pivotal concern influencing voters this fall.

“This issue over school construction is probably the biggest issue of the year because it really addresses and engages the corruption that exists in Annapolis as we speak,” he said. “This is going to be talked about every day of the year between now and November.”

For their part, the Democratic majority in legislature said they had seen enough groveling at the feet of the board’s members by county officials hoping to win funding for their projects.

Proponents also contended that the change would take politics out of the education equation.






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