ANNAPOLIS — Several Maryland leaders sat alongside each other Thursday in a bipartisan fashion to speak in one voice in support of a proposed $2.2 billion public school construction bill they call “a game-changer.”
County executives and the mayor of Baltimore City that represent jurisdictions small, medium and large acknowledged children continue to succeed, but in some buildings that opened more than 50 years ago.
“It brings bipartisan support for this effort,” said Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, a Republican. “When [students] get off the bus, they need to go to a school regardless of where it is in this great state.”
Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said the average age of its school buildings is 41 years old, the second-highest figure in the state. She stressed the ongoing renovations at Forest Heights Elementary, where portions of the school are held up by “large, hydraulic jacks” and all 300 students currently have been displaced and moved to nearby John Hanson Montessori School in Oxon Hill.
“This is unbefitting of children in our school system,” she said. “We want to not only speak to their potential and their value, but we want to be able to speak to our kid’s dignity. We are at a key moment in time.”
Alsobrooks spoke first during the nearly 90 minutes of testimony before the House of Delegates’ Appropriations Committee in Annapolis on the bill labeled the Built to Learn Act, or HB 1. The number one signifies the legislation as the first presented in the 90-day session.
She summarized how the bill would be financed by bonds for a 30-year period through the Maryland Stadium Authority paid through $125 million per year from casino revenue directed toward education.
The bill operates separately from the ongoing recommendations by the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education to restructure the state’s public school system.
“Schools in every county of Maryland are in desperate need of renovations,” said House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County), who backed the bill. “Every year we have children sitting in classrooms with no heat or no air conditioning. Realistically, we can’t educate kids in substandard conditions.”
The Interagency Commission on School Construction ranked Prince George’s, along with Baltimore City and Kent County, as three jurisdictions with some of the oldest school buildings in Maryland.
Prince George’s would get its share of state funding through a public-private-partnership, or P3, as a way to help speed up the construction process.
It became the first jurisdiction in the nation to use the P3 model for school construction. So far, the county already has five schools slated for completion in three years.
The school system would select a private company to handle construction and maintenance, which county officials have said would decrease an estimated $8.5 billion backlog. Once construction gets completed and students are inside the schools, the school system would regain control of the buildings.
Prince George’s school system is the second-largest in the state and among the 25 largest in the nation.
Although everyone who testified supports public school construction, a few offered suggestions to the legislation.
Theresa Mitchell Dudley, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, warned lawmakers when new schools are constructed, “put some checks and balances” on residential development to prevent overcrowding.
Del. Michael A. Jackson (D-District 27B), who represents portions of Prince George’s and Calvert counties, said all ideas would be assessed, including a recommendation to increase the threshold amount for pre-construction costs from $20,000 to $30,000 to benefit smaller counties such as Washington, Charles and Carroll.
“That component of the whole planning stage is a huge portion,” said Jackson, vice chair of the Appropriations Committee. “That’s what hearings like this are for, to give folks the opportunity to address those concerns. Everybody’s got a stake in this.”