School Districts Request Construction Money at "Hope-A-Thon"


ANNAPOLIS (Jan. 21, 2010) - School systems from all over the state asked the Board of Public Works for more money Wednesday, hoping to get some, or all, of $62.5 million in unallocated funds for school construction.

Education leaders from 18 counties took part in the annual event, now called the "hope-a-thon" but formerly known as the "beg-a-thon."

The unallocated construction funds are part of a total $250 million for school construction in the state budget. Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposed fiscal year 2011 budget, released Wednesday, included a record $5.7 billion for K-12 education.

Even so, there just wasn't enough money at the hope-a-thon for each district to walk away happy. Some requests far exceeded the total amount to be given out.

Baltimore County, for example, requested $118 million for construction and renovation projects specifically targeted at reducing overcrowding in Towson-area schools, while Prince George's asked for $55 million, part of which would fund new schools in Hyattsville and Fairwood.

Baltimore schools asked for $70 million in additional funds.

"Our original (request) was $89 million, so we're asking for the whole thing," said Andres Alonso, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools. "I think we've been granted $19 million so far."

Alonso said he knows that Baltimore won't get the full $89 million, but explained that even if it did, the money would support only a fraction of the city's school renovation needs.

"A boiler costs about a million and a half dollars," Alonso said. "So if you're talking about renovating a whole new school that's about $30 million. So $89 million gets you two schools renovated or it might get you a boiler and window projects in 20 schools."

Alonso said Baltimore was in particular need of school construction funds.

"We have the oldest infrastructure in the state and many decades of deferred maintenance. We're always balancing the need to make sure that the kids are getting heat with the need to bring something new to a community," he said.

State Comptroller Peter Franchot likened the outsized requests for funds to "way too many pounds of potatoes trying to be put in a very small sack" and tried to brace the districts for potentially tighter budgets in the future.

"They're focused on new schools today, but I think it's getting through that we're not going to have a huge amount of money down the road," Franchot said.

The comptroller emphasized that school districts should focus on upkeep of existing buildings rather than building new ones.

"There are a lot of facilities out there that are not going to get funded," Franchot said. "Making sure that what you've got is preserved for as long as it can be is important."

"I'm saying to the districts that we're in an age of austerity," Franchot said. "At some point it's going to be reflected in even lower amounts than we're seeing now for school construction. We're going to have to live within our means and extend the life of some of these buildings."

Caroline, Garrett, Kent, Talbot, Somerset and Worcester counties did not request any of the additional funds.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.

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