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Officials say schools will need $80 million

September 10, 2003|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

Stating that $80 million in school construction projects will be needed over the next several years, Washington County education officials on Tuesday asked the County Commissioners for $10 million annually in capital money and to endorse giving bonding authority to the School Board.

School officials said increasing enrollment, old buildings, rising construction costs and a decrease in capital money from the state means the School Board will need more money from the County Commissioners to keep up with construction needs.

Director of Facilities Management Dennis McGee said the state has cut its share of school construction to school systems by $150 million a year.

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"We do really have an infrastructure crisis in our schools," Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan said. "We feel that we're at the point where we have to add this one way or another."

In a Sept. 4 letter to the commissioners, School Board Chief Operating Officer William Blum said the school system has some schools that are more than 50 years old and lack sprinkler systems and air conditioning.

The School Board asked that the commissioners increase their annual contribution to the school system's Capital Improvement Plan from $5 million to $10 million for the next fiscal year and support allowing the School Board to issue bonds.

Having bond authority would enable the School Board to seek $25 million in revenue bonds, Blum told the commissioners at the meeting.

Blum said the School Board plans to use its annual $70 million general fund contribution from the state as a pledge to repay the bonds. The School Board would pay back $1.7 million a year over a 25-year period.

The School Board would need enabling legislation from the Maryland General Assembly to issue bonds. The commissioners would have to approve through a resolution all bond issuances, Blum said.

Both the bonding proceeds and the increased county contribution to the School Board's capital budget would speed up school renovations and consolidations, Blum said.

The commissioners said they had concerns that the county would be stuck with the bill if the School Board were unable to repay the bonds.

"There's many ways to skin the cat, I guess," Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said. "Someone, in the end, will still need to pay."

Snook said the commissioners will consider the School Board's request.

Commissioner John C. Munson said after the meeting that he opposes the School Board having bonding authority.

"I don't think it's going to be a thing that's going to fly," Munson said. "The commissioners are the ones who have the authority for bonding. I think it should stay that way without anyone else having it. It shouldn't be any other way."

But he said the commissioners will help the School Board with construction projects as best they can.

McGee said the school system's enrollment increased by 340 students so far this year. He said he expects the student population to continue to climb as more housing units are constructed in the county.

He said it's possible the School Board might have to build a school in the Eastern Elementary School area to accommodate additional growth.

"These impacts can be devastating," McGee said. "I'm afraid we're not going to be ready for any enrollment growth."

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