By Darcy Costello
Capital News Service
In a heated discussion with the head of the school construction program, Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot aired serious concerns about the state’s spending on public school projects at Wednesday’s Board of Public Works meeting.
“We can’t just keep shoveling more and more money without accountability,” Hogan said. “The taxpayers are getting pretty frustrated with the results.”
David Lever, executive director of the state’s Public School Construction Program, appeared before the board to explain a contract for additional funding to local school systems with significant enrollment growth or relocatable classrooms. In the contract, which was approved 3-0 by the board, $5,864,000 went to Gaithersburg High School and $1,046,000 went to Severna Park High School.
Franchot, a Democrat, emphasized that he had no problems funding work on individual schools, but questioned the way the state’s public construction money is spent.
Lever said that the Interagency Committee on School Construction doesn’t have the power to control how districts spend the state funds.
“The money can be spent any way they want,” he said.
Costs rise post-recession
At a Interagency Committee on School Construction meeting Sept. 17, Lever emphasized the role the post-recession recovery has played in escalating public school construction costs.
“Five years ago, school construction had steady funding. Today, it’s a different thing altogether,” Lever said in September. “Construction costs have gone up considerably and they have to cut back … The recession hurt construction because they lost people and they can’t get people to come back.”
In the Board of Public Works meeting Wednesday, Hogan said that education was his “top priority,” citing his administration’s spending on schools, which he said was the highest in state history. Still, he said, he’d like to see state and individual school districts improve their spending plans and fiscal responsibility.
“The public wants better results and, for God’s sake, they want safe classrooms that are climate-controlled,” Franchot said, referring to a lack of air conditioning in some Baltimore County schools.
“I understand the input — we vote on money,” the comptroller said. “But what’s the outcome? … This is what drives our citizens crazy. They all want to support education. But what’s the result?”
“We just want schools to be built faster for less money,” Hogan said. “That’s what the public wants to see.”
Treasurer Nancy Kopp declined to get into the hostile questioning of Lever, who actually works directly for the Board of Public Works, but did say they were still waiting for a report on how Maryland could build more schools for less money.
At the beginning of the meeting, Kopp also urged the governor to fully fund the $68 million for Geographic Cost of Education Index. House Speaker Michael Busch had urged Kopp and Franchot on Monday to “step up to the plate” and ask Hogan to release the extra school funding the legislature had appropriated.
Emergency city jail contracts
The board, including Treasurer Nancy Kopp, D, also approved the following contracts with a vote of 3-0:
–A combined 14 emergency service contracts, totaling $3,478,367, connected with the closing of the Baltimore City Men’s Detention Center in July. The building’s closure relocated the 1,100 prisoners being housed there, and the emergency service contracts were for maintenance in the new locations. The detention center was the subject of a food service contract dispute earlier this year.
–A 6-month, $416,126 emergency contract, with a 3-month extension option, to the Environmental Systems Research Institute for geographic information system software. The contract appeared before the board previously, but was tabled for a later vote after Franchot and Hogan challenged the company’s relationship to former Gov. Martin O’Malley, who had a $140,000 speaking contract with ESRI after he left office. The emergency was declared on Sept. 16, as the Department of Information Technology claimed it was a vital state service.
–A contract under protest by Turlington Valuation Associations Inc. for nursing home appraisal services. The contract was granted to Page Appraisals Inc., after Turlington requested a waiver for release from its minority business enterprise requirement and was denied. This is the second contested contract approved by the board under Hogan’s administration in the face of protest. Under the eight-year O’Malley administration, the board approved 11 contracts in the face of protest, deferred one and had two contracts withdrawn.