Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

State pays county $11M owed for building schools

Prince George’s officials say money unexpected, plan to seek $130M for future construction

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The state is finally paying $11 million it had promised to Prince George’s County years ago to help build or renovate four schools.

‘‘We were not expecting to get our money back,” County Executive Jack B. Johnson said during a news conference Monday with Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) at Bladensburg High School. ‘‘I had written off the loan.”

The county government was promised money over several years from the state for several school projects, however, state officials under former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s (R) administration said the funds were not available, officials said.

As a result, the county covered the costs when the state fell $2.9 million short of the $25 million promised for Bladensburg High School, which opened in 2005. Over the last four years, the county also covered state costs of $6 million for Hyattsville’s Rosa L. Parks Elementary School, which opened in 2006; $683,000 for an addition to DuVal High School in Lanham completed in 2007; and $1.7 million for renovations in 2007 at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Beltsville.

Christine Hansen, spokeswoman for O’Malley, said the money would come out of $333 million budgeted by the state for Maryland school renovation and construction over the next year. She said several Maryland counties would receive back payments for school construction this month. Hansen did not know which counties expected to be reimbursed.

O’Malley’s school construction package has drawn welcomed praise from state and local officials after state lawmakers raised taxes in November to resolve a $1.7 billion budget deficit.

‘‘[O’Malley] is trying to address one of the most significant issues in [Prince George’s]” by funding school construction, said Ronald Walters, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. ‘‘But I don’t know if this alone is enough to boost the governor’s popularity.”

County officials said the money would go toward the county’s school construction budget as required by law.

Prince George’s officials are seeking more than $130 million in state funds for school construction in fiscal 2009.

The state’s Board of Public Works, consisting of the governor, the comptroller and the state treasurer, must approve plans for school planning and construction. On Jan. 30 in Annapolis, officials from across Maryland were expected to plead their case for school construction funding during a 10-minute request to the board.

There are currently three new elementary schools in the planning and design stages in Prince George’s — one in the northern part of the county and two in southern Prince George’s. Those projects are expected to be completed by 2010.

County school officials are also considering $14.7 million for renovations at Central High School in Capitol Heights. The 47-year-old building would have new plumbing installed, a roof replacement, a new alarm system and a host of other improvements if school board members proceed with the plan this year.

‘‘There’s an insatiable desire for school construction [funds],” O’Malley said at the news conference after mingling with students and teachers in a tour of Bladensburg High School, one of the largest in Prince George’s.

O’Malley toured Western School of Technology and Environmental Science in Baltimore County earlier this month and promised the school would soon receive nearly $1 million for a new roof.

‘‘If we don’t invest [in schools] now, it’ll just be more expensive five or 10 years from now,” O’Malley said.

Prince George’s County school board members said although enrollment has steadily declined and is expected to continue dropping in coming years — from 136,000 students in 2005 to 128,000 in 2009 — the county needs the state aid for new schools. This school year, there are about 10,000 students in more than 400 classroom trailers, which are used when the main school building is at capacity, at the county’s 207 schools.

‘‘We’re not going to be out of the school construction business anytime soon,” said at-large board member Donna Hathaway Beck, who added that officials are reviewing school facilities this winter to determine which buildings are most in need of renovation and additions.

E-mail Dennis Carter at dcarter@gazette.net.