- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2008

ANNAPOLIS - Tough economic conditions have contributed to an unprecedented drive for the largest shares of the state’s $341 million school-construction money, exposing political rifts throughout the state.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, lashed out yesterday at Montgomery County leaders who say he broke a promise to give them $55 million.

Montgomery is set to receive $46 million, the largest share next year.

“My point is … that’s the largest allocation in the state, correct?” Mr. O'Malley said at the Board of Public Works meeting before approving $341 million in school-construction money. “It’s the largest by $5 million right? The closest one is $41 million correct? Thank you.”

The Baltimore County proposal was undercut by a report by school-construction officials who said its proposal was “replete” with errors. The county is set to receive $41 million, the second-largest amount.

“There are a lot of jurisdictions that are chomping on the bit with projects ready to go,” said Comptroller Peter Franchot, who sits on the board with Mr. O'Malley and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp.

Montgomery County lawmakers traded their votes during the special General Assembly session in the fall for the guarantee of $55 million in school-construction money - but cried foul when Mr. O'Malley gave them $46 million.

Mr. O'Malley chastened the Montgomery lawmakers in a radio interview earlier this month.

“You did not support my [budget] package, you said, ‘Oh, goodness, what a horrible notion,’ ” Mr. O'Malley said on “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” on WAMU-FM.

Many county school systems have been starved for school-construction money since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. cut spending to close budget shortfalls during his first two years in office.

However, Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, increased construction spending his last two years in office.

David Lever, Maryland’s school-construction director, told the board in a letter that most counties were prepared to spend the additional money, but that Baltimore County was “replete” with errors, which indicated a lack of communication between the county executive and the county school board.

Mr. Franchot, a former Montgomery County state delegate, was among the most critical on the amount of money Baltimore County will receive.

The situation previews a likely showdown between Mr. Franchot, a staunch O'Malley critic, and Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith, a close O'Malley ally who many expect to run against Mr. Franchot in the 2010 Democratic primary.

Mr. Franchot also referred to a memo from the school-construction committee to board members questioning whether Baltimore County could spend all of the money it was to receive.

The board withheld $3.9 million of the $41 million until local and state leaders can agree on how to spend the money, which was intended for an addition to Loch Raven High School in Towson.

Community activists said Mr. Smith skirted the public process and went against the wishes of the community and the county school board by proposing the addition, instead of building a new school.

“One suspects that the Board of Public Works is not often asked to deny funding for schools,” said Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, vice president of the Chatterleigh Neighborhood Association, which is adjacent to the school.

Lawmakers representing the school district also said they were frustrated with Mr. Smith’s actions.

“Without giving any consideration as to how the residents affected by this proposal feel, and without even consulting with the Baltimore County School System officials, County Executive Jim Smith has chosen to unilaterally decide how best to serve the educational needs of our children,” Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, Baltimore County Democrat, told the board.

Mr. Smith and the county schools superintendent have told the board the process was open and approved by the county school board.

Mrs. Kopp said she hesitated to turn the board into a school authority that nit-picked local issues, but that she was surprised that county leaders seemed to have skirted the public process.

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