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Maryland board trumps Franchot on Steinways for Bowie State

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ANNAPOLIS — Maryland officials on Wednesday approved Bowie State University's plan to spend $553,000 on 32 Steinway pianos over the objection of Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot, who has become increasingly critical of the state's spending amid an anticipated $1 billion shortfall.

School officials hope the pianos will boost the prestige and quality of the school's music program.

But Mr. Franchot, a member of the state Board of Public Works, suggested the school instead seek money from private donors or buy a less expensive brand of pianos. However, he was outvoted 2-1 by the other board members — Gov. Martin O'Malley and state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp.

"I guess there is some prestige with being an all-Steinway school," said Mr. Franchot, a Democrat. "But couldn't we have bought a couple of Steinways and the rest been Chevrolets instead of Rolls-Royces?"

Mr. Franchot, a former state delegate, has established himself as a relative fiscal conservative in the Democrat-controlled state since being elected comptroller in 2006, and is widely expected to run for governor in 2014.

He has challenged state officials to cut spending to combat next year's anticipated budget shortfall and has opposed tax increases in the near future — including a proposed gas-tax hike supported by many Democratic leaders.

The comptroller said he was irked by the "symbolism" of the piano purchase, despite university officials' argument that Steinways will help attract elite music students and faculty to a school that has long had to make do with substandard equipment and facilities.

Marymal Holmes, a music professor and director of the school's choir, said the pianos would allow Bowie State to join such all-Steinway schools as Yale University and the University of Maryland, College Park, and would make it only the country's second historically black, all-Steinway school, along with Spelman College in Atlanta.

Ms. Holmes added that students have asked for better resources and that the pianos would go well with the opening of the school's new performing-arts building next year.

"It's unmistakable," she said, when asked whether students would be able tell the difference between Steinway and a lesser brand. "They know the difference, and they are very excited at the prospect of having this."

Ms. Kopp acknowledged Mr. Franchot's concerns, but she and Mr. O'Malley, a Democrat, signed off on the new pianos.

The treasurer said she was won over by their benefit to the school, and pointed out that the bulk purchase would allow the university and state to save about 25 percent of the normal price for the instruments.

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