“Great News: Despite the failure of the school construction study bill...Governor O’Malley has agreed to require the study by executive order.”
— Del. Eric Luedtke (D-Dist. 14), Facebook, 4/8/14
What do Montgomery County lawmakers and morticians have in common? They’re both good at making corpses look lifelike. For MoCo lawmakers the corpse is the county’s statehouse quest for more school construction money, their top priority in this year’s General Assembly. It’s dead as a doornail but MoCo’s lawmakers are painting it a “great news” victory.
It all started last year when school officials announced yet another round of delayed school renovations and replacements in a school system swollen by new immigrant youngsters adding 2,000 students annually (enough to fill one new school building every year). Angry Montgomery parents awoke from their comatose state and began filling school auditoriums demanding action.
“We represent thousands of students across Montgomery County who are attending crumbling, outdated, overcrowded schools because our state legislators, council members and board of education talk about what they value, but do not act on those values,” a Rockville high school senior testified at one hearing.
Facing a difficult reelection, county executive Ike Leggett responded by increasing the county’s school construction budget 13 percent. But that meant cutting a host of other badly needed county construction projects and still left Montgomery’s six-year school construction budget $230 million short.
Afraid to raise taxes, again, Leggett and the county council were left with only one place to find the money: Annapolis. So in January, with great fanfare, Leggett and Montgomery’s state delegation kicked off their March on Annapolis. The plan was to get the same extra funding that Baltimore city got in 2013, a guaranteed $20 million a year for 30 years on top of the usual share of state school construction funds parceled out annually.
“I think it’s doable, we just need to present the information right,” said Sen. Nancy King (D-Dist. 39). Also, county lawmakers were still celebrating last year’s top county priority, the 83 percent gas tax increase. Back then Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Dist. 20), the senate delegation chairman, crowed, “When we get together and we have our eyes on the prize, we are absolutely unstoppable.”
To the untrained eye MoCo’s school construction crusade did look “unstoppable.” After all, didn’t Leggett testify for Baltimore’s school bill last year? And didn’t he say there’d be a “me, too” moment when he expected reciprocal help for Montgomery’s schools? And didn’t Montgomery’s state delegation unanimously vote for Baltimore’s school bill? And doesn’t Montgomery, with 17 percent of the state’s students, only get 11 percent of the state’s school construction money?
And wasn’t MoCo a good soldier back in 2008 when Gov. O’Malley reneged on his $55 million school construction trade for MoCo’s tax hike votes? And didn’t MoCo go quietly, again, in 2012 when O’Malley and the legislature slashed MoCo’s teacher pension grant, the last state funding formula favoring MoCo? And, now, with the county executives of P.G. County and Baltimore County on board, how could a joint bill seeking Baltimore’s deal for all three counties fail? Heck, the House bill had 71 sponsors, a legislative majority!
Sorry, folks, it was all an election-year charade. By March Sen. Nancy “I think it’s doable” King was saying, “From the get-go I haven’t believed that bill could go anywhere.” And Del. Anne Kaiser (D-Dist. 14), MoCo’s House delegation chair, said the county’s lawmakers, “were not necessarily expecting it to pass.” Even Leggett changed his tune saying that he didn’t really need the cash until 2016 or 2017 when nearly half MoCo’s schools will be overcrowded.
Okay, how about that help from Baltimore city that Ike was counting on? Well, here’s how the Baltimore Sun put it, “... they (MoCo, PG and Balt. Co.) could easily produce another $20 million a year in revenue on their own without asking the state for help.” You see, the state’s duty is to help Baltimore city, not the suburbs.
In committee MoCo’s school construction bill was gutted and, instead, turned into a summer study bill. But the legislative leaders didn’t even have the decency to pass this castrated version. So now Gov. O’Malley, by executive order, will “study” MoCo’s request. So much for “unstoppable” Montgomery.
Leggett says the study commission is “significant progress” and remains confident that Montgomery will ultimately prevail. But back home he’s catching hell from his rivals. “He (Leggett) was fighting for the children of Baltimore and not fighting for the children of Montgomery County,” charged Doug Duncan at a recent debate. “That’s a real problem when the county executive of Montgomery County isn’t looking out for the interests of Montgomery County in Annapolis.”
In response, Leggett says that Baltimore’s school needs had to be tended to first, to suggest otherwise is “laughable.” On the politics, he’s right. Baltimore city had the political muscle and savvy to grab $600 million in guaranteed school construction money all to itself.
But on the merits, he’s wrong. The state’s rescue of Baltimore’s deplorable schools is just another reward for the city’s malfeasance. When the city let its jail go to hell, the state took it over. When the city let it’s community college go to hell, the state took it over. Now the state is bailing out the city’s schools which went to hell because the city refused to close half-empty buildings as enrollment plummeted. Instead of biting the bullet, Baltimore wasted $10 million a year maintaining and repairing buildings that should have been closed. But city officials didn’t want the boundary battles so, as a result, the city had the state’s lowest classroom occupancy rate. Consider this: MoCo, with 155,000 student and Baltimore, with 85,000 students have approximately the same number of school buildings.
The most surprising aspect of MoCo’s school construction fiasco this year is that O’Malley and the legislative leaders didn’t throw Montgomery a few million, one-time only school bucks to help Ike’s re-election. I guess paying off the “House of Cards” movie production company was more important.
Senate President Mike Miller is fond of describing Ike Leggett as “such a nice guy.” The problem is that in Annapolis, as in baseball, nice guys finish last.
Blair Lee is chairman of the board of Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His past columns are available at www.gazette.net/blairlee. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.