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Operating expenses slow new schools

Economy affects counties’ plans

Maryland officials say counties are scaling back on much-needed new school construction because they cannot pay for the staffing and maintenance of new buildings in these tough economic times.

"The economic downturn has begun in a serious way to affect the local fiscal picture," David Lever, director of the state's Public School Construction Program, said Wednesday. "The governments simply cannot support as many projects or as large projects as they did in the past."

In fact, cash-strapped counties turned away more than $10 million in school construction funds this year, subtracting from a statewide $265 million school construction budget for fiscal 2012 approved Wednesday by the state Board of Public Works.

Mr. Lever said Charles and Wicomico counties, which both turned away money, are two of the hardest hit among Maryland's 24 local jurisdictions.

He also said the counties' decisions are part of statewide trend over the past four years in which local school jurisdictions are making fewer funding requests for construction.

Requests dropped from $894 million in fiscal 2008 to $612 million in fiscal 2012, with Mr. Lever expecting the trend to continue and even grow as larger jurisdictions begin to face similar problems.

Though counties must pay a share of the new construction, the heavier burden is the cost of additional staff, maintenance and day-to-day operation, Mr. Lever said.

For example, Charles County officials have pushed back the completion date of the proposed St. Charles High School, from 2013 to 2014, due to concerns over first-year operating costs.

The county withdrew an approved request for nearly $7 million in funding this year for the school, despite having already spent $8 million and the state having spent $3.5 million.

Wicomico County asked the state to keep $5.2 million it wanted for a new middle school, while Carroll and Frederick counties have also shown concerns over paying for new construction. However, most intend to re-apply when economic conditions improve.

While Maryland officials have long prided themselves on paying generously into an education system often ranked among the nation's best, some have raised questions about whether some projects are too ambitious.

Charles County officials do not expect to scale down their plans for St. Charles High, which is slated to have an observatory and possibly a swimming pool.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, one of three Board of Public Works members, said Wednesday schools are an important priority, but state and local officials indeed must make hard decisions during the downturn.

"We want to have school progress and we want to have social progress, but we've got to be fiscally responsible," said Mr. Franchot, a Democrat. "As uncomfortable as this is ... it's a reflection of tough times."."

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