The General Assembly voted Thursday to override Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of two school-focused bills. One of these takes oversight of school construction projects away from the Board of Public Works, which Hogan presides over.
Democrats say sidestepping the three-member Board of Public Works removes the politics from school construction. Instead, the authority to approve construction funding will go to the Interagency Committee on School Construction, known as the IAC. The IAC currently gives recommendations to the Board of Public Works. The legislation makes it an independent commission under the State Department of Education’s umbrella.
“The Board of Public Works has been political since its inception,” said Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Democrat who represents South Baltimore.
He referenced a 2003 article in The Baltimore Sun.
“Then a Republican state senator was approaching the Board of Public Works,” Ferguson said. “Governor Ehrlich had a much better reception because the prior governor had said, ‘Did you vote for my budget? And I’ll tell you if you can get some extra money for a school project in your district.’”
The school construction process gained attention more recently when the Board of Public Works — specifically Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot — voted in May 2016 to withhold school construction funding from Baltimore city and county over air conditioning in schools. The head of the IAC at the time, David Lever, resigned over the action.
The IAC makes its recommendations based on local school boards’ priorities, he told WYPR in an interview at the time.
“Intervention by the state in telling the local boards what projects to submit, the kinds of projects, the scopes and so forth, the priority, is really an intervention into their educational programs,” he said.
When Hogan vetoed the bill Wednesday, he criticized the IAC members as political appointees who aren’t accountable to voters.
“This bill, if allowed to become law, would be an unmitigated disaster for our state, which would create a disgusting cesspool of cronyism and corruption in the school funding process,” he said.
Republican legislators echoed Hogan’s concerns Thursday. Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings, who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, accused Democratic senators of using the bill to target political opponents.
“You know, we’re, what, 40 miles away from Washington, D.C.? And D.C. has come to Annapolis on this bill,” he said.
On the other hand, House Majority Leader Bill Frick, from Montgomery County, said removing power from the elected officials and giving it to the appointed members of the IAC could lead to apolitical decision making.
“The bill has been criticized at times because it puts more power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats,” Frick said. “Bureaucrats without political ambitions to satisfy. Bureaucrats without political opponents to punish.”
The bill’s scope actually extends far beyond the Board of Public Works. When it was initially introduced, the bill reflected the findings of a commission that spent two years studying the school construction funding process and looking for improvements. It was considered to have bipartisan support.
Several legislators on both sides of the aisle criticized the changes to that original bill.
“The reason I’m for this bill has nothing to do with this political cat fight that people are talking about,” said Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a Democrat from Prince George’s County. “It has to do with the 90 percent of the bill that’s going to improve our system of building and repairing schools in Maryland.”
For example, he said, the bill encourages public-private partnerships as a means of repairing and building schools.
It also allocates $400 million for school construction annually, and $10 million for school safety improvements, such as lockable classroom doors and surveillance equipment.