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Construction of schools could cost county more

February 01, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Washington County would bear more of the financial burden of school construction under a recommendation being eyed by a state task force.

For more than a year, the Task Force to Study Public School Facilities has been scrutinizing the formula used to determine the state versus local share of school construction costs.

Under one option gaining steam on the task force, Washington County would have to pay 41 percent of the costs, or 6 percent more than it does now.

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If the new split were in effect for the renovation of Salem Avenue Elementary School, it would add $500,000 to the county's share of an $11.9 million project, Washington County Public Schools Facilities Manager Dennis McGee said.

Washington County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook asked local lawmakers Wednesday to try to prevent any losses to the county.

A final recommendation from the task force could come as soon as Monday. Legislation will be drafted this session to change the formulas, said Rachel Hise, a staff member for the House Appropriations Committee.

"It's going like a train," Snook said.

Late in the week, local lawmakers said they still were trying to gather information and talk to people on the task force.

Since 1995, the state has paid for 65 percent of school construction costs and Washington County's share has been 35 percent.

The state share only applies to construction, not land purchase, design and other site preparation costs, McGee said.

In other jurisdictions, the state share ranges from 50 percent to 90 percent, with wealthier counties paying more.

Under the option that seems to have the most support on the task force right now, Washington County is one of five counties that would lose state money. Twelve jurisdictions would get more state money. The remaining six would stay the same.

Another option being pushed by the Maryland Association of Counties would keep Washington County's formula the same and boost the state's share in seven economically distressed school districts.

If the task force decides not to change the formula, Washington County still could lose.

When the latest numbers on wealth and student population are entered into the current formula, the county's share will increase from 35 percent to 40 percent.

Del. George Edwards, R-Garrett/Allegany, said Friday he was not sure what the task force will decide.

"Everybody's got different opinions. I don't know what will transpire," he said.

Edwards is the only Western Maryland representative on the task force, which is scheduled to meet Monday morning in Annapolis.

The state's share of school construction could drop at a time when the state already can't afford to spend enough on schools to keep up with a backlog.

To bring every school in the state up to minimum standards would cost $3.9 billion, according to the task force's draft report.

To take care of the most critical needs, the state would have to provide $186 million per year over the next decade, according to the report.

In his proposed 2005 budget, Gov. Robert Ehrlich has earmarked $101.6 million, which is the lowest amount in recent years.

Ehrlich's predecessor, Parris Glendening, had been spending $250 million per year on school construction when the state's coffers were overflowing.

The county at that time failed to take advantage of the state windfall by not putting forward enough matching money, said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

Over the past few years, the commissioners have increased the amount being spent on school construction in an effort to address an $80 million backlog.

Fees that recently were added to the cost of new construction will allow commissioners to set aside even more, he said.

It may be the state that can't afford the matching money now, Shank said.

"It's just going to be a while before our fiscal house is in order in the state," Shank said.

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