2014 | Politics

Board of Education President’s Letter Doesn’t Sit Well with MoCo Legislators

Effort to Turn Up Pressure Over School Construction Aid Rebuked by Dumais

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Montgomery County Board of Education President Philip Kauffman and state Delegate Kathleen Dumais.

The relationship between county officials and the local state legislative delegation, never an easy one, appears to be flaring up again as the clock runs down on efforts to win an infusion of school construction aid from Annapolis.

A letter to members of the legislative delegation late last week from Montgomery County Board of Education President Philip Kauffman – containing a district-by-district breakdown of 80 school expansion and improvement projects that Kauffman said would be jeopardized if the General Assembly does not act this year—was seen by some legislators as an unwelcome attempt to play political hardball.

One senior delegation member, District 15 Delegate Kathleen Dumais, bluntly said as much in responding to Kauffman. “Perhaps I took your letter the wrong way but, I found your letter…to be demeaning and disrespectful,” Dumais declared.

Apparently alluding to past criticism of the state legislative delegation by County Council members on various issues, Dumais suggested Kauffman was setting up the state legislators for another round of such complaints.

“Letters such as the one you sent that allow the Board of Education and, actually, the County Council, to lay the groundwork for pointing fingers at the state delegation for ‘failing to bring back enough state construction dollars’ are patently unfair,” she told Kauffman. Kauffman was not immediately available for comment.

At stake is pending legislation that would bring Montgomery County as much as $20 million in matching state funds for school construction at a time when enrollment is increasing at a rate of about 2,000 students per year.

The exchange of letters between Kauffman and Dumais came little more than a week before the General Assembly’s so-called “crossover deadline” – meaning that, if the bill fails to make it out of either the House of Delegates or the state Senate by this coming Monday, March 17, it is all but dead for the year.

Kauffman’s letter was dated March 6, a week after the chair of the county’s House delegation, District 14 Delegate Anne Kaiser, told the Gazette newspapers that she was skeptical the legislation would pass this year. At the same time, County Executive Ike Leggett – who has teamed with counterparts from Baltimore and Prince George’s counties to push for the bill – conceded in comments to the Washington Post that passage would likely be a multi-year effort, given election year politics and decreasing state revenue projections.

But Kauffman, in his letter to the delegation, noted a capital improvements budget recently unveiled by Leggett assumes approval of the pending legislation to leverage $230.7 million in school construction bonds from 2016-2018.

“The County Council has expressed concerns that, in the event this initiative does not succeed during the 2014 legislative session, the council will have to reassess the [Montgomery County Public Schools’ Capital Improvements Program] request within a short window of time,” Kauffman said, adding that the council had asked the Board of Education to provide a list of construction projects “to be delayed or removed…if the $230.7 million is not available.”

Kauffman said that the Board of Education will not act on the County Council’s request for such a list until late April. “However, we wanted to share with you the list of potential projects, by legislative district, that could be affected if the initiative is not successful,” he told the delegation. 

Attaching the list, Kauffman added, “Unfortunately, the list includes revitalization/expansion projects for both elementary and secondary schools; addition projects, primarily for elementary schools; heating, ventilation, and air conditioning projects; and roof replacement projects.”

In response, Dumais said: “No one in the Montgomery County delegation disputes the significant enrollment growth in our school system, and we are all well aware of the anticipated growth in the next decade. Further, we are all certainly aware of the needs of our aging school facilities.”  She also noted that her father was the second principal at Seneca Valley High School after it was built, declaring, “It breaks my heart to visit that school today.”

But, echoing Leggett’s statement that passage of state aid for school construction is likely to be a multi-year project, Dumais told Kauffman: “Let's be honest. The proposed legislation is an important statement and first step to pursue but, the fiscal reality is and has always been that the legislation is unlikely to pass this year. Ratcheting up the rhetoric is not helpful.”

There is likely, however, to be no shortage of rhetoric on the subject this spring as the Democratic primary for county executive race intensifies.

At a debate last week, former County Executive Doug Duncan accused Leggett of “not fighting for the children of Montgomery County” – a charge that Leggett characterized as “offensive.” And the third candidate in the primary, Councilmember Phil Andrews, has repeatedly criticized the state legislative delegation over statistics that the county receives less than 20 cents back on every dollar it sends to Annapolis.