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Bonds are crucial to kids' future

October 05, 2003|by the Washington County Board of Education

In 1953, then superintendent William M. Brish, wrote: "The population is increasing, old buildings have outlived their usefulness, and new residential trends are presenting new school building problems." Brish then embarked on an aggressive capital improvement campaign, and many of the schools built during that era are still in use today.

Fifty years later, Brish's statement could be describing the current situation in which the board finds itself, with an approximately $80 million backlog in capital improvements centering on restoring or eliminating obsolete school buildings, relieving overcrowding in certain areas of the county, consolidating under-utilized schools and addressing the needs of a growing student population. The sad fact is the majority of our current students will spend their careers in old buildings and portables.

This Board of Education has determined that even though its request for funding for school improvements may take courage and ingenuity, it must do the right thing and advocate for appropriate learning environments for the staff and students of Washington County.

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It is no longer good enough to just "make do" and force people to adapt to the crumbling infrastructure surrounding them on a daily basis. We must uphold the highest standards for our children, not only for academics, but also for dress, conduct and for their surroundings.

The recent Herald-Mail article regarding our request to seek revenue bonds did not give an accurate picture of the problems we are facing and the solutions we are proposing to bring our school buildings up to date. The board was surprised by comments that suggested it is being irresponsible and crying "wolf" in putting forth its request for funding. Furthermore, the suggestion that kindergarten students could be housed in "unused area churches" and "other spaces" in the county is totally impractical. We want the public to understand why one or two-room, offsite classes are not a practical solution to the problem of inadequate facilities.

In the first place, the cost of leasing, paying utilities and the transporting of students and food to these "centers" would be expensive. When you add on the cost to adhere to strict state standards governing classroom space for kindergarteners, such as a bathroom in the classroom, easily-accessed and to-code exits, and mandated minimum classroom space, the cost to modify facilities escalates further. In fact, the current trend is no longer to remodel but to build a new school because it is more cost effective in the long run.

Furthermore, what do we do with special education teachers mandated by law to serve one, two or small groups of students? Would one teacher travel to five or six "centers" to provide services or would we hire five more to do the job?

The same would apply to art, music, physical education, reading, media and other teachers. Shall we double, triple and even quadruple our teaching staffs to accommodate students in centers, or would these students go without the services others receive, thus creating an inequity?

How much would it cost to provide a secure setting in a church or other space that has a lot of public traffic? And how would we handle lunch preparation and serving, which also must adhere to strict codes on process and product?

Obviously, putting groups of students together in one building, housed in the community, with a central transportation and teaching system is the preferred model and the most efficient and cost-effective way to operate. Neighborhood schools were designed for that purpose years ago, and it was William Brish's vision to do away with scattered and dispersed one-room and substandard schools and provide an upgraded education in centralized locations.

The public may not understand that a "revenue" bond does not require taxing authority. Unlike general obligation bonds, "revenue" bonds simply require a steady source of income that can be used to repay the loan (bond). The Washington County Board of Education is proposing that existing State of Maryland aid to education be used as the revenue source to meet the obligations. Since the State of Maryland enjoys the highest Triple A credit ratings, the Board of Education bond offering would similarly enjoy very favorable rates.

The Board of Education, however, is primarily interested in expanding the Capital Improvement Program (CIP), and offered this concept to the County Commissioners as an efficient, alternative financing structure.

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