- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2006

BALTIMORE — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is pledging to include the same amount of money for school construction in his upcoming budget that was in the budget for the current fiscal year — an amount that Democrats and advocacy groups quickly criticized as inadequate.

Mr. Ehrlich will commit $338 million for school construction in the budget for fiscal 2008, he said yesterday at the site of a new high school in Ijamsville, Md. For the fiscal 2007 budget, Mr. Ehrlich initially pledged $281 million, but subsequent negotiations with the General Assembly brought the total to $338 million.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat running against Mr. Ehrlich, has pledged to include $400 million in school construction funding in his initial budget. In his recent debates with Mr. Ehrlich, Mr. O’Malley argued that too many Maryland children are attending classes in temporary trailers.

Mr. Ehrlich maintains that $400 million is an arbitrary number and that Mr. O’Malley has no plan for how to fund such a pledge, said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor.

“The mayor cannot be taken seriously on education issues generally, and school construction specifically,” Mr. Fawell said.

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for the O’Malley campaign, said Mr. Ehrlich cut school construction funds during his first three years, only to make an election-year turnaround.

“This is typical of the two Bob Ehrlichs,” Mr. Abbruzzese said.

A task force headed by state Treasurer Nancy Kopp recommended in December 2003 that Maryland spend at least $250 million annually for eight years to bring schools across the state up to minimum standards.

Mr. Ehrlich has met or exceeded that amount in every year since, and is pledging at least $1.25 billion over the next five years, Mr. Fawell said.

The governor said his administration has funded the construction of 45 new schools and the full-scale renovation of 52 more.

“We will continue making substantial investments in school construction so that every child learns in a safe and modernized school,” Mr. Ehrlich said.

But Sean Dobson, executive director of the liberal lobbying group Progressive Maryland, said Mr. Ehrlich still wasn’t doing enough.

“Four hundred million is the actual number that Maryland needs per year to get our schools to a world-class level, where we want them to be,” Mr. Dobson said.

Leslie Knapp Jr., associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said the group was pleased with Mr. Ehrlich’s pledge, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t advocate for more construction dollars during the General Assembly session.

The sharp recent increases in the cost of construction materials means the state must go beyond the minimum amount of $250 million a year recommended by the Kopp commission, Mr. Knapp said.

“They certainly didn’t foresee the mass increase in construction inflation that’s occurring,” he said.

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