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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

General Assembly hypocrites attack school board plans

(Posted 10 Dec 2008)

Comment:  Although I believe that the school board's plan to spend $36 million on new headquarters was an extremely dumb move, I am disgusted by the hypocrisy of our General Assembly members who spent millions and millions and millions of dollars on their own office buildings in Annapolis over the past few years--taking money away from schools and helping to create the state's huge deficit--but now criticize the school board for doing the same thing on a smaller scale.

Headquarters Move Bugs State Officials; Lawmakers Cite Troubled Economy, Press Board to Be Honest About Costs.
Post, 10 Dec 2008 (Hernandez).
State lawmakers from Prince George's County grilled the school board this week on a $36 million headquarters move, saying they were worried the project would divert money from classrooms during a recession and make it harder for them to argue for education funding in Annapolis.

The planned headquarters at Washington Plaza, an office park not far from the Capital Beltway and Andrews Air Force Base, has been an object of heated debate since the school board voted 6 to 4 in June to approve a 10-year lease-purchase agreement.

The deal's supporters celebrated their success, saying it would allow the school system to move out of its moldering central administrative building in Upper Marlboro, save money by consolidating offices across the county and provide parents with most school-related services in one location.

But that was before the country entered a financial crisis and the state faced a $1 billion budget shortfall. Now, lawmakers are deeply pessimistic that they will be able to maintain funding for education during the upcoming legislative session.

In a meeting Monday night in Upper Marlboro, Del. Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George's) asked the board to be "honest" about the property's costs. Sen. Nathaniel Exum (D-Prince George's) chimed in a few minutes later: "Everywhere I go in my district, there is no support for this Washington Plaza or whatever it is."

Other lawmakers weighed in. "I know that when you're doing a whole system move, it's going to be extremely expensive," said Del. Aisha N. Braveboy (D-Prince George's). "These expenses, for the leases and the cost of moving and the cost of retrofitting, are all taken out of operating expenses, which is the classroom."

School board Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs (At Large) and Vice Chairman Ron L. Watson (At Large) said that a new deal the school system is pursuing would save the schools $390,000 a year by consolidating staff buildings scattered across the county. Yet the current 10-year lease-purchase deal, according to a fact sheet the school system provided to lawmakers, costs the system $156,000 more per year. The new deal, equivalent to a 30-year mortgage, is expected to be in place early next year.

After the meeting, Jacobs said: "It is a cost savings. It is almost as if people don't want to believe that, but it is. There are new state buildings going up all the time. . . . We all recognize that there comes a time when you have a need to consolidate services. We believe that this project does exactly that."

"There are still some questions in terms of the money and the computations and their accuracy," said Del. Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George's), the new chairman of the Prince George's House delegation. "I would say at this juncture that there is concern about the decision to proceed, but there is also an understanding that decisions are made with the information that people have at the time decisions are made. . . . I don't think any of us were aware of the depth of what we were facing."

School board members have long recognized the sensitivity of the issue. When the board was voting on the lease six months ago, Heather Iliff (District 2), who supported the lease, warned that the decision could turn the board into "a political punching bag." John E. Deasy, the superintendent at the time, strongly urged the board not to approve the lease. A spokesman for County Executive Jack B. Johnson said the time was not right for the long-sought office move.

"We just need to continue articulating to the community that this is a benefit to the community and a benefit to students," Watson said Monday night.

"It may be a good idea, but not today, not this week, not this month, not this year," said Del. Barbara A. Frush (D-Prince George's). "It's just very bad timing."

Frush said the project will complicate efforts to preserve state school funding when the legislature meets next month.

"It will be problematic," she said. "Everybody's going to have their hand out. And they'll have their hand out for better reasons than a new building."

Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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