As state leaders raise concerns with funding commitment to school building maintenance, an imperfect state law may actually be a hindrance to better investment toward these goals.
In the first meeting of the Board of Public Works since Governor Hogan’s inauguration, the Governor, Comptroller, and Treasurer all stated the importance of maintaining our public schools to prolong their useful life. While Dr. Lever, the Executive Director of the Interagency Committee on School Construction, described current efforts of counties to fund maintenance projects, the Governor, Comptroller and Treasurer questioned what more could be done.
See Conduit Street‘s recent coverage of the Board meeting, where the state of school maintenance was described as a “bleak situation.”
One thing that could be done is a reform of the nonrecurring cost system. Created as part of Maryland’s education funding laws, the nonrecurring cost system was intended to allow county governments to invest in one-time costs for the school system. The system separates one-time costs from mandatory annual funding. However, due to a lack of clarity in how the system functions and lack of consideration for county budget timelines, on average only a third of Maryland’s counties participate in the nonrecurring cost system each year.
One-time investment of county funds into school maintenance is among the topics that counties could pursue for this treatment, but the lack of a clear “green light” from the state, and a timetable that matches up with county budget decisions, leaves many counties unable to do so.
MACo sought changes to the nonrecurring costs system in the 2014 legislative session: see Conduit Street coverage of the MACo initiative legislation.
The current law and regulations for nonrecurring costs require county governments to receive approval from the Maryland State Department of Education for one-time costs associated with the upkeep of older school facilities. If a county does not receive approval of the cost as nonrecurring then they may still pay for the upkeep, but they will then be mandated to add the cost of the repair or replacement to their education budget for every future year, too. This practice is particularly concerning in uncertain economic climate as federal and state reductions loom over a still-uneven economy, leaving counties uncertain about their ability to maintain funding in perpetuity.
Examples of Expenditures Denied as Nonrecurring Costs:
- Installing a ramp in a parking lot to meet ADA standards,
- Updating an upper gym balcony railing to meet OSHA regulations,
- Installing an exhaust fan in concession stand,
- Installing air conditioning in a computer lab,
- Replacing classroom counter-tops, carpet in media center
- Sidewalk repairs
Lack of clarity and accessibility to the nonrecurring cost program inevitably discourages investment in one-time costs by threatening to permanently raise education costs to address a one-time need. As described above, the deadline for nonrecurring cost applications arrives before 15 of the 24 subdivisions even submit their first local budget, closing the door on a meaningful opportunity to consider an application. Even if a county makes the deadline, there is a level of uncertainty regarding the approval process. Based on MSDE’s data, over the past five years, the Department has rejected one in five nonrecurring cost applications.
For more information, see our previous post MSDE Releases 5-year Report on Maintenance of Effort Exclusions and Governor Hogan Voices Support for School Maintenance Over Replacement.