Worcester Seeking School Construction Alternatives

At the heart of a long story is the difficulty of high-cost school construction projects.

Screenshot 2016-01-06 14.36.57
Worcester County seeks to replace Showell Elementary in Berlin, Maryland. A proposed budget for the project exceeded $50 million.

A recent article in OC Today shares an update on the construction of a replacement elementary school in Worcester County.

Through the story of one school’s project approval process, the OC Today article also gives insight into school construction cost drivers in Worcester County.

The story begins with a budget proposal delivered by the schools to Worcester County Commissioners for a school replacement project. The proposed project budget exceeded $50 million, according to the article.

As it describes the process of the project’s approval, the article explores the reasons behind school construction expenses in Worcester County, including increases in construction costs and a lack of competition between construction bidders,

“The primary factor associated with the increase is time. We built Ocean City Elementary School in 2005 at a cost of $141 per square foot. Three years later … the bids for the Pocomoke High School project came in at $238 per square foot,” Joe Price, facilities planner for the schools said, according to former schools spokeswoman Barb Witherow.

Securing contractors is also a concern for the schools.

“Worcester County does not have an abundance of potential bidders like the western shore. On our most recent project, Snow Hill High School, five of our contractors are from the eastern shore while 12 are from the western shore and two are from Pennsylvania. Travel and mobilizing personnel and equipment impact the costs associated with bids, and therefore, construction costs,” Price was reported to have said, according to Witherow.

The article also describes the lessons learned as Commissioners inquired into the costs of school construction in other counties. In Anne Arundel County, for example:

  • Schools are built on a prototype template, meaning almost all of the schools have somewhat similar design specifications
  • In a recent school construction project, the county already owned land to be used for a new school
  • With a larger overall number of schools, the county is about to move students into other facilities while new construction is taking place

Over the course of discussions about the new school, the project missed an a deadline with the State’s Interagency Committee on School Construction. At that point, Executive Director of the Committee, David Lever, is quoted in the article describing the State’s contribution to the project, which is $9 million.

For more information, see the full story from OC TodaySchools, county cannot agree on costs for Showell.

Maryland Community Colleges See 20% Increase in Dual Enrollment

The Maryland Association of Community Colleges (MACC) announced this week that significantly more Maryland high school students are earning college credit before graduating high school. Dual enrollments at community colleges jumped 20% in fall 2014 compared to the prior year. Dual enrollment programs allow students to simultaneously enroll in high school and college.

“Saving time and money is just part of what dual enrollment is all about,” said Dr. Bernie Sadusky, Executive Director of MACC. “Dually enrolled students, especially at-risk students, often improve high school performance, and are more likely to complete college than peers who are not dually enrolled.”

According to the press release from The Maryland Association of Community Colleges,

During each semester of the 2014-15 academic year, over 5,000 Maryland high school students took college courses for credit at their local community colleges.

Discounted tuition, plus college credit earned in high school, can give students a head start on college and career, and can significantly improve college affordability and reduce student debt.

For more information about dual enrollment opportunities throughout Maryland, read the full press release from The Maryland Association of Community Colleges.

MACo Features Innovations in Education at Winter Conference


Photo: Senator Mac Middleton and Betty Weller, President, Maryland State Education Association (MSEA), Chris Parts, US Green Building Council, Maryland Chapter

At the 2013 Winter Conference, MACo featured new programs and initiatives that may create possibilities for more unconventional educational options in Maryland. Panelists engaged in a broad-based discussion of topics that challenge some traditional notions of schooling.  Senator Mac Middleton facilitated the discussion.

Val Emrich, Director of Instructional Technology, Maryland State Department of Education introduced the state’s new digital learning regulations and described the need to incorporate alternate ways of learning to improve the ability of US students to compete in the global marketplace.

Betty Weller, President, Maryland State Education Association discussed the Common Core and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessments would affect our state’s education infrastructure.  Both of these initiatives drive for higher level learning, such as interaction with complex texts in elementary school English and modeling real-world concepts in Math courses.

Chris Parts, US Green Building Council, Maryland Schools Committee spoke about new types of school design and how sustainable school design elements can be incorporated into environmental lessons for our children.  Mr. Parts described the high costs of heating and cooling schools with traditional construction methods, and described innovative lighting projects, such as light shelves, and teaching children about “vampire loads” of appliances that suck energy even when turned off. For more information, see Chris Parts’ powerpoint presentation.

Andy Smarick, Partner, Bellwether Education Partner shared the benefits of alternative education choices including charter schools and topics in his new book.  Mr. Smarick envisioned a system in which governments can accelerate recovery and achievement of school districts through closing failing schools and re-opening them under new management.

Free Online Educational Workshops Offered to County Officials

Join thousands of county officials and staff around the country in timely, practical education in one or more of the many topics on NACo’s agenda. Register by linking to the webinar(s) from the list that follows.  When you join the webinar, you’ll hear the presentation live by your choice of either phone or computer, and you’ll see the presentation on your computer screen. If you have any questions, please contact Amanda Odorimah, Education and Training Associate, at aodorimah@naco.org or 202.942.4225.

  • Using County Health Indicators to Inform Local Policy Decisions
    Thursday, May 05, 2011
    2:00 PM – 3:15 PM  Eastern Time

    Many health data sources and tools exist that can help identify health assets and challenges within your community.  Join us as speakers demonstrate how your county can utilize community health and quality of life indicator information to help inform policy decisions and more effectively target local public health resources.
  • Managing Your Message in the Digital Age of Communications (Members Only Educationg)
    Wednesday, May 18, 2011
    2:00 PM – 3:15 PM Eastern Time

    Reporters are blogging and posting stories online all day long. Your constituents – armed with smart phones – are Tweeting and posting “status updates” each day too. While the technologies are changing, the rules of media relations and public communications have not. Learn basic media relations best practices and the DOs and DONTs of using social media. This webinar is especially useful for newly elected officials or those who have yet to take the plunge into social media.

“Last Day” Issues Wrap Up

As reported yesterday by MACo, a number of issues with county effect remained in play prior to the midnight deadline for the General Assembly session.  Below is an overview of how each of those bills ultimately played out:

Maintenance of Effort – As reported yesterday, three bills were awaiting  final action. MACo supported HB 44 and SB 53 as a legislative initiative, to expand and balance the process for considering county MOE waiver requests —and both bills stalled in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. Status:  The bill that passed, HB 869,  delays the “penalty” for any county missing MOE but denied its waiver – withholding funds in the subsequent year, rather than the immediate year. The bill will become effective June 1, 2011.

Semiannual Payment Schedule for Business PropertyHB 463, was amended by the Senate to apply to businesses with property taxes that do not exceed $100,000.  The House concurred with the amendments and the bill passed and will become effective October 1 and will apply to all taxable years beginning June 30, 2012.

Ambulance Service Providers and Assignment of Benefits SB 154, which would require health insurers to reimburse an ambulance provider (must be owned, operated, or under the jurisdiction of a political subdivision or a volunteer fire company or rescue squad) directly for covered services passed both chambers.

Public Access to Electronic Records:  HB 37 / SB 740 alters the State’s Public Information Act (PIA) to address the release of public documents in electronic format.  The bill will require the State and local governments to provide records in a searchable and analyzable electronic format where possible.  Governments have the authority to remove “metadata” before providing an electronic document.  MACo supported the bill.  Status:  SB 740 passed with a 2013 sunset that was added by the Senate.  The House initially rejected the addition of a termination date but later receded from its demand.  HB 37 did not pass.

Open Meetings Act Complaints:   HB 48, which was requested by the Open Meetings Compliance Board, sets a 1-year time limit for a person to bring an open meetings complaint before the Board.  It also requires local governments to post their meeting notices online and also physically post them at a publicly accessible location.  Finally, it repeals the requirement of a written notice.  MACo supported the bill.  Status: The Senate altered the 1-year time limit to 5 years but the House has rejected the Senate change.  The two sides were unable to resolve their differences and the bill failed.

Waste-To-Energy as Preferred Renewable EnergyHB 1121 / SB 690 would move waste-to-energy from a Tier 2 source to a Tier 1 source (a more favorable position) within the State’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard.  MACo supported the bill.  Status:  The House amended the both HB 1121 and SB 690 to also include refuse-derived fuel as a Tier 1 source.  The Senate accepted the amendment and passed SB 690.  HB 1121 did not pass.

Funding for School Aid, School Construction and DDA Wait List SB 994/HB 1213 increase the tax on the sale of alcohol from 6% to 9 %.  The bills are in slightly different posture.  SB 994 provides $15 million to fund the Developmental Disabilities Administration waiting list, while HB 1231 provides $47.5 million for school construction projects across the State.   As specified in the budget, funds from this revenue increase are also being used for additional school aid in Baltimore City and Allegany, Garrett, and Prince George’s Counties.

Uses of Local Program Open Space Funds SB 421 extends the recently expired practice of allowing a local government that has attained its POS land acquisition goals to use all of its POS funds on recreational facilities and projects.  MACo supported the bill.  Status:  The bill passed the Senate and encountered difficulties in the House.  MACo drafted amendments that specified that 25 percent of the funds could only be used for the following purposes:  (1) land acquisition; (2) repair or renovation of existing recreational facilities or structures; and (3) capital renewal projects (projects necessary to preserve the physical integrity of a facility or structure or to integrate two different phases of a phased-development project).  Both the House and the Senate passed the bill with the MACo amendments.

Unauthorized Signs on Highway Rights-of-WayHB 289/SB 410 would authorize removal of improperly placed signs on highway rights-of-way by state or local authorities, and authorize a civil action to recover costs of their removal or disposal.  MACo supported the bill because it would assist in the beautification of public roadways and provide reasonable authority for state and local governments to remove improperly placed signs.  Status: Both bills passed and will become effective October 1.

Towing Task Force Legislation: HB 356/SB 570 would implement the recommendations of the Task Force to Study Motor Vehicle Towing Practices. MACo raised concerns with language that stated that a motor vehicle towing and storage lienor may not sell the motor vehicle to which the lien is attached unless the lienor is licensed by the local jurisdiction.  MACo suggested that this language be amended to clarify that it only applies to those local jurisdictions that currently license towers, retaining the bill’s intended incentives, without a local mandate.  This amendment was not adopted.  Status: both bills died in conference committee on the last day of the session.

Motor Carrier Permits for Local Public Transportation Systems: HB 431/SB 402 would exempt a public transportation system established under the public laws of a county government or municipal corporation from the motor carrier permit required for a passenger motor vehicle used in the transportation of persons for hire.  Currently, local transportation systems are regulated by local government, the PSC, the MTA, and the Federal government depending upon the sources of funding used for operations.  MACo supported this bill to streamline and create efficiencies in the process.  MACo did however,  seek an amendment so the bill would also apply to local governments that entered into contractual arrangements with non-profit entities to manage and operate transportation systems on their behalf.  Status: SB 402 passed with MACo’s amendment and will become effective October 1.

Direct Deposit of Wages HB 233/SB 484 would authorize counties and municipal corporations to pay employees’ wages by direct deposit.  Status: The final version of the bill that passed (HB 233) would require direct deposit as a condition of employment and provide an opt-out for those individuals who do not have a bank account.  In addition, the bill was amended to grandfather those jurisdictions that currently may require direct deposit through a collective bargaining agreement, personnel regulation or local law.

Concussion Education and Treatment: HB 858 and SB 771 require school systems and youth sports programs to provide information about concussions to athletes, their parents or guardians, and coaches.  An athlete suspected of having a concussion or other head injury must be pulled from practice or play until cleared by a licensed health care provider.  MACo supported the bills with amendments that would clarify the bill’s notice and education requirements for local parks and recreation departments.  The amendments also clarify information that must be provided by youth sports programs when using school or local government-owned recreational facilities.  Status:  HB 858 and SB 771 were amended to become identical bills.  Both bills passed with the MACo amendments.

Montgomery County Response Filed on MOE Debate

Montgomery County has filed its response to the recent petition before the State Board of Education, seeking “clarifications” to the maintenance of effort laws. The State Board has yet to indicate a definitive path toward resolution for these issues (questioning the process for a county that may be unable to meet MOE for a given year, and questioning the ability of county councils to cut the education budget).

Board of Education of Montgomery County – petition and memorandum
MACo response
Montgomery County response

Concern has also been raised in Annapolis about the uncertainty cast by the County Board’s petition (and the lengthy legal wrangling that may be required to fully resolve the matter), and may trigger action before the General Assembly.

See previous coverage of these issues on Conduit Street.

Anne Arundel Budget Debate Highlights “Different World” For Education

Among the six counties seeking a waiver from the state’s maintenance of effort funding level this year is Anne Arundel County, whose submitted request seeks relief of less than 2% of the specified funding amount. However, the underlying debate in that county serves to highlight the seemingly inevitable friction arising from difficult budget times.

From the Baltimore Sun’s coverage of the county’s waiver request, here is County Executive John Leopold speaking about the county’s changing budget:

“The maintenance formula needs to be reformed in order to account for counties that exceed maintenance of effort, such as Anne Arundel County has, Montgomery County has and other counties have,” said Leopold. He added that 20 years ago, the county’s Board of Education budget was 42 percent of the total county budget and that it is now more than 52 percent.

“We need not wait another 10 years for the Board of Education to take 62 percent of the budget,” Leopold said. “We need to take corrective action now. The Board of Education budget, while obviously … very important, is starving the other agencies of county government of the resources they need to maintain the quality of life that county residents expect.”

While strained budgets tend to have a wide range of components and challenges, many tend to focus on the most visible: employee salaries. And in this respect, the county budget circumstance provides a stark contrast. From the Baltimore Sun’s coverage of the County School Board’s February approval of the Superintendent’s proposed budget, here are some summary comments that illustrate the varying point of view from the School Board’s own membership:

The operating budget for fiscal year 2012 is $37.3 million more than the previous year’s budget. It funds negotiated agreements with unions, the system’s health care obligations and 20 mentor-teachers required to fulfill obligations associated with Race to the Top federal funding.

After the meeting, board Chairwoman Patricia Nalley said she was pleased with the recommendations, which total $108,000 less than what Maxwell proposed in December. “I’m proud of what we’ve done,” she said.

The lone dissenter in the vote, board member Victor Bernson, argued that the budget is too similar to previous budgets he has reviewed in his five years on the board.

Bernson added, “This budget seeks $40 million in new spending, an increase of more than 4 percent. … This budget doesn’t even make a pretense of engaging in real honest cuts, nowhere. How can we ask for $40 million in new spending when we already know the county has no additional money to give?

“This board should not be asking for phantom pay and benefit increases, which we already know are impossible,” Bernson continued. “But rather, we should be a true partner with the county in searching diligently for greater efficiencies, economies of scale and making responsible decisions about changing compensation, especially health care benefits. I don’t believe we have a revenue problem; I believe we have a spending problem.

The proposed and approved school board budget for Anne Arundel County is available online here.

The county’s teacher union has opined on the matter as well, quickly suggesting that the proposed level of funding could lead to a shift from steps-plus-COLAs to layoffs. From their site:

The net result will be an actual reduction in school funding from this year of $9 to $10 million. It will leave the Board’s budget request underfunded by $47 million. Impact on employees will be unavoidable. Layoffs loom as a real possibility for the first time in many years.

The School Board in each county is required to submit a proposed budget for consideration by the county governing body (in Anne Arundel County, the County Executive and County Council, in that order chronologically). However, this proposed budget does not include any element of affordability or balance — the School Board does not have any structural obligation to present a budget to the county that connects in any fashion to projected revenues or other affordability measures.

The proposed step and salary increases in the school board’s budget reflect a substantial cost increase over the prior year’s budget. While the county was required to present a request for its maintenance of effort waiver for FY 2012 by the statutory deadline of April 1, the county executive does not present a proposed budget until April 15.

MACo Weighs In On Maintenance of Effort “Interpretation” Issues

As previously reported on Conduit Street, the Montgomery County Board of Education has asked that the State Board of Education issue a declaratory ruling to interpret several facets of the state’s “maintenance of effort” law. Were the County Board successful in its petition, counties not receiving a MOE waiver (through the much-debated process still under legislative review) would face an absolute mandate to fund at the MOE level. Further, the County Board seeks a ruling that a state provision granting extra budgetary powers to county councils also by implication denies councils the ability to cut the school budget. Counties have expressed broad concerns with these arguments, and today MACo is filing a letter to the State Board of Education to refute these interpretations.

This excerpt from MACo’s letter summarizes the essential positions counties take on the intended effect on state law:

In its March 2 brief, the County Board essentially argues that the State MOE law establishes an absolute mandate upon each county government to provide at least that funding level, unless a formal waiver is granted. Further, the County Board argues that State law’s limited mention of certain county councils’ authority to replace funding reductions effected by the county executive thereby precludes the councils any ability to reduce school funding levels as proposed by the county executive. On both topics, MACo argues that the selective reading of statute and legislative history required to reach these interpretations is inappropriate, and contrary to the intended effect of each statute. Further, consistent with widely accepted principles of statutory construction, we believe that the County Board’s suggested interpretations would yield a demonstrably absurd result, and should be rejected for that reason as well.

Read the County Board’s petition and memorandum here

Read the MACo response letter here

The State Board has not yet given clear indication on the timing or process to be used on this matter going forward, and whether their deliberations will include an opportunity for public or stakeholder comment.

Signs of Life on Maintenance of Effort? “Penalty Delay” Bill Begins to Move

While two cross-filed bills with strong leadership sponsors were introduced early in session to modify the maintenance of effort waiver process, both HB 44 and SB 53 remain stalled in their committees of origin, even after the “crossover” deadline has come and gone.

However, today the House Ways and Means Committee’s Education Subcommittee took up, for the first time this session, legislation to address maintenance of effort. The bill they discussed, and passed, however, was HB 869, sponsored by Delegate Hixson. That bill passed subcommittee on a unanimous vote today, with amendments limiting it to one provision. The version of the bill now moving would make one change to the waiver process – in the case of a county missing MOE and denied a waiver, the bill would delay the withholding of education funds until the subsequent fiscal year, rather than the immediate fiscal year. MACo had supported this provision of the bill, arguing that the delay would give county governments and school boards a more reasonable time to plan for the withdrawn state funds.

HB 869 will now be reported to the full Ways and Means Committee, and then (presumably) to the full House. No crossfile of this bill was introduced in the Senate.

County Issues Watch – Week of March 28 – April 1

The General Assembly has passed its “crossover” date, meaning most legislation destined to pass has been approved by its house of origin. As always, exceptions apply – and there remains much work to be done in Annapolis in these final days until the April 11 end of session. Here we will detail issues of interest to the county community that are likely to play out during the week of March 28-April 1, 2011.

Budget Conference

The Senate will debate its budget plan on the floor this week, and then House and Senate budget leaders will begin their conference — meetings between the two chambers to produce a consensus budget plan to bring to both chambers for a final “up or down” vote. Most of the major county fiscal issues have seemingly been narrowed by agreement between the two chambers — rejecting a massive shift of teacher pensions, rejecting a dismantling of Program Open Space and other transfer tax funded programs, but agreeing to a substantial cost shift for administration of the pension system. Continued debate will likely address reforms to pension and health care benefits for employees, and different approaches to revenues from the two houses.

On the list for county governments, the largest dollar amount remaining unresolved is the proposed shift of assessment costs, beginning in FY 2012. The Governor proposed shifting 90% of these costs (about $35 million), the House reduced this shift to 50% (roughly $20 million), but the Senate accepted the Governor’s full shift proposal. The amount of this shift will have an immediate impact on county budgets still in development.

Maintenance of Effort – Waiver Deadline May Focus Discussion

SB 53 and HB 44, the two bills MACo has supported to reform the waiver process for Maintenance of Effort, remain apparently stalled in their committees. Both bills had public hearings weeks ago (February 2 in the Senate, February 9 in the House), but neither has been taken up for attention in a subcommittee, nor brought up for a final committee vote. With the bills introduced as “Emergency Bills” (meaning they would take effect immediately upon being signed into law), MACo had hoped for prompt action to reform the waiver process for FY 2012 budgets. However, with no new legislation in effect, the State Board of Education’s April 1 deadline for waiver requests remains, and the standards and timing under current law will apparently remain in effect for this year’s requests.

MACo remains hopeful for action on these important bills. If multiple counties seek waivers for the Fy 2012 budget year, perhaps the legislative committees will recognize the breadth of the issues raised by this challenging funding level in an environment of declining revenues.

Should State Law Extend Local Permits?

HB 1050, legislation to provide an extended “tolling period” for local permits has passed the House, and is heard this week in the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee. MACo has opposed the bill, raising concerns that its overbroad application simply mandates one-size-fits-all rules to a wide spectrum of local permits — many of which apply to land use decisions that may have been appropriate at their origination in 2008, 2009, or 2010, but do not necessarily merit a multi-year extension granted by the bill. A similar bill failed in this Senate committee last year, but MACo will continue efforts to articulate the importance of local autonomy in managing these local approvals.

Unemployment Insurance – Potential for Relief?

The Administration’s bill ( HB 1228/SB 882) to accept federally-paid extended unemployment insurance benefits for private sector workers has raised concerns with the effect on public sector employers, who are self-insured and must pay for these benefits directly. MACo and MML have jointly worked to seek administrative relief from these costs, and are pursuing amendment language to effect some offset to these potential costs. Both bills are still awaiting action, presumably pending the outcome of these negotiations.

Keep reading the Conduit Street blog for developing news on county issues as the session progresses.