Thursday, October 07, 2010

Ehrlich vs. O’Malley on School Construction

State political news has been dominated this week by the debate between Bob Ehrlich and Martin O’Malley on state education aid, a worthy topic on which we will have some comment. But operating support is only one side of state funding for local schools. The other side is capital support for school construction. How did the two Governors do on that measure during their terms in office?

First, let’s understand how the state makes funding decisions on school construction. The Public School Construction Program (PSCP) is administered by staff overseen by the Board of Public Works, a three-person body consisting of the Governor, the Comptroller and the state Treasurer. Every year, the state’s twenty-four local school districts submit capital funding requests to PSCP. Those requests are reviewed by the staff and an inter-agency committee comprised of the State Superintendent of Schools (Nancy Grasmick), the Secretaries of the Departments of General Services and Planning, and one member each selected by the House and the Senate. The staff and the inter-agency committee review each school district’s capital submission to determine those projects with the most merit and forward their recommendation to the Board of Public Works. State support is given in the form of matching grants for local contributions, with the state paying a higher percentage of project costs in “poor” jurisdictions than in “rich” ones. The school districts can appeal that recommendation to the Board before the Board takes a final vote.

Obviously, the Governor is not the only player in this process, but he is the single most important player. Early on, the Governor determines a preliminary allocation for school construction, which sets the total pie available for school construction funds. This preliminary allocation then forms the basis for a bond authorization to be passed by the General Assembly which actually pays for the state’s school construction funding. And while the Governor does not directly determine funding allocations by county, he can substantially influence that decision through his appointment of two of the five inter-agency committee members and his relationship (or lack thereof) with Grasmick.

In practice, the counties submit more money in requests than they know the state will approve. Many small jurisdictions submit small requests and get most or all of them approved. Big jurisdictions submit massive requests and get less of them approved, but they also get more money. The biggest factor influencing the entire process is how much money is available – and that is the Governor’s call.

Here are the amounts of school construction funding requested by the counties and approved by the state during the Ehrlich and O’Malley administrations.

Unsurprisingly, the amounts requested by the counties have gone up – WAY up – during the last eight years. In Ehrlich’s first year, the counties asked for $310 million in school construction money. This year, the counties asked for $729 million. The state’s approval rate has varied between 30% (in FY 2005) and 45% (in FY 2008). Total amounts have risen substantially over time as O’Malley has raised his school construction funding allocation to keep pace with the counties’ rising requests.

Here are the total amounts of school construction funding requested and authorized by county for the two Governors’ terms.

The Ehrlich administration approved $765 million in school construction money. The O’Malley administration approved $1.2 billion in school construction money, a 63% increase. Part of this was driven by more funding requests from the counties, but O’Malley made more money available to meet them. Nineteen of the state’s twenty-four jurisdictions received more school construction funding under O’Malley than under Ehrlich. Every county that saw a decrease asked O’Malley for less money than they asked from Ehrlich.

Here are the school construction funding increases enjoyed by the state’s eight largest jurisdictions under O’Malley’s term relative to Ehrlich’s term.

Anne Arundel: +95%
Harford: +93%
Montgomery: +92%
Baltimore County: +89%
Baltimore City: +82%
Prince George’s: +73%
Howard: +56%
Frederick: +37%

Bob Ehrlich served as Governor in fat budget times but only made school construction a priority in the year he ran for reelection. Martin O’Malley has served as Governor in lean budget times but has made school construction a priority every year.

For those who are concerned about crowded schools, the choice is clear: O’Malley.