By: Elliot Davis, Captial News Service
FOREST HEIGHTS, Maryland — Sen. Bill Ferguson, likely Maryland’s next Senate president, stood in Forest Heights Elementary — a school shut down temporarily for safety reasons — on Wednesday, and said the building “tells its own story” when it comes to education in the state.
“We can, we must and we will do better,” Ferguson, D-Baltimore, said during a news conference.
Ferguson, along with other Democratic leaders from both the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates and other officials, announced Wednesday a $2.2 billion plan to build and renovate schools across the state that will be taken up during the 2020 legislative session.
The plan, called the Built to Learn Act, will be funded at least in part by bonds from the Maryland Stadium Authority as well as dollars from the state’s casinos, said Delegate Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore. McIntosh said the $2.2 billion total will be broken up into approximately $125 million annual payments.
“This bill has nothing to do with taxes,” McIntosh told reporters after the announcement.
Jake Weissmann, chief of staff to outgoing Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., told Capital News Service that determining the split between building new schools and renovating current ones will “depend on the jurisdiction” and its needs.
Miller, the first to speak at Wednesday’s news conference, said the plan is about getting Maryland “back to No. 1” in education.
“We’re going to make school construction and school operating funds our No. 1 priority,” Miller said. “ … It’s going to be astounding.”
Wednesday’s announcement further means that education will dominate the 2020 session, with the legislature also taking up recommendations from a commission created for the purposes of studying how to transform Maryland’s public education system.
The current proposal by the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, chaired by former University of Maryland President William “Brit” Kirwan, recommends phasing in increased funding over the next 10 fiscal years. In the fiscal year 2030, direct state aid would exceed $10.2 billion, which is $2.8 billion “more than would be allocated under current law,” according to the commission’s proposal.
“We will move forward with both because we cannot afford not to,” Ferguson said Wednesday, referring to the commission’s recommendations and the school construction plan.
The General Assembly attempted to pass a bill during the 2019 session — similar to the one announced Wednesday — that would have created a public-private partnership in Prince George’s County allocating over $2 billion in funds for public school construction. The bill, known as the Build to Learn Act of 2019, died in the Senate.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan referenced the bill in an October statement that criticized the Kirwan Commission.
“No governor has ever invested more in our schools,” Hogan said in the statement, while also referring to the commission as the “Tax Hike Commission” that it is “hellbent on spending billions more than we can afford.”
Miller, D-Calvert, Charles and Prince George’s, said Wednesday that Hogan wants to “build schools, but nothing inside the schools.”
Hogan previously proposed a $2 billion school construction investment, which he called in the October statement “the largest in Maryland history.”
“While they are a year late, we are glad that General Assembly leaders are now endorsing our historic school construction plan,” Hogan said in a statement following Wednesday’s news conference. “Clearly, they recognize that we need to provide school systems — and most importantly, our students — with the healthy, efficient, and modern school buildings they deserve. Now that our legislators are finally making school construction a priority, I certainly look forward to working with them to get it done.”
House Speaker Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County, said that improvements to school buildings are “long overdue.”
“It’s no wonder that student literacy is on a rapid decline,” Jones said. A recent national report found reading scores among Maryland fourth and eighth graders in decline. “ … Students can’t learn if their classrooms are deteriorating.”
“The 2020 legislative session will be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make sure that every student in every neighborhood has a great public school,” said Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, in a statement. “…as well as expanded career technical education, increased educator pay, and more educators in our schools to increase individual attention for students.”
Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, told Capital News Service prior to the news conference that the announcement is part of a “major push in both chambers” toward school construction. Pinsky is the chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
Pinsky added that lawmakers want school construction to be “HB1 and SB1” — in other words, the first bills of the 2020 legislative session. A sign at the news conference, referring to the Built to Learn Act as “House Bill 1” and “Senate Bill 1,” reflected Pinsky’s words.