School Money Begathon Becomes More Civilized Affair

By KELLY WILSON, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS (Jan. 30, 2008) - Gov. Martin O'Malley started his term last year at odds with the begathon, the annual gathering where public officials from around the state come before the governor, the comptroller and the treasurer in a day-long grovel fest for money to build and improve schools.

O'Malley disliked the spectacle so much that he tried to change its unofficial name to Hope-a-thon.

To further limit the day?s association with its past namesake, O?Malley this year discouraged legislators and others from participating. He wanted only public school officials to come before the three-person Board of Public Works.

His efforts paid off, fulfilling the hopes of at least some in Annapolis as the traditional gaggle of county executives and council members, state legislators and commissioners was left out of the ordeal entirely. Instead, only school superintendents and board of education members faced O'Malley, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp.

The pageantry of previous years was missed perhaps least of all by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert.

"It was very demeaning, it served no constructive purpose," he said.

The earlier practice gave the impression that funds were meted out based on politics rather than need, Miller said.

School board members seconded Miller and said the smaller crowds were a comfort, both physically and emotionally.

The comparative calm made the environment in the State House "refreshing" this year and afforded educators a much-appreciated chance to interact with the governor, said Joe Hairston, superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools.

Only Franchot said he missed the state lawmakers and local government officials.

"I wonder if it would be beneficial to have the additional arm of local government," Franchot said wistfully toward the end of the presentation of the Montgomery County educators.

"There were very few elected officials," he said, after the meeting. "In the future we probably should encourage some more local elected officials to attend because the budget issues are so connected to school funding issues."

Ultimately board members and educators agreed that they were all to be congratulated on the progress that has been made in Maryland's education system, which was ranked third in the country by Education Week's "Quality Counts" study released earlier in January.

The repetitious appeals from all but seven school districts across the state revolved around crowding and the need for new schools and additions to get rid of portable classrooms, or what O'Malley likes to call "learning shacks."

Some repair backlogs really stood out. Washington County's Fountain Rock Elementary, for example, uses a 37-year-old heating and air conditioning system that is too old for replacement parts to be found.

"We've reached the point where now we have to invent the parts," said Betty Morgan, superintendent of Washington County Public Schools. "Our staff has to make them."

Part of the appeal from Donald M. Wade, chairman of the Charles County Board of Education, was for a digital classroom that would include a dome-like structure.

"A dome?" Kopp said. "Like a planetarium dome?"

"Yes ma'am," he said.

"That's super," Kopp said.

Super enough, in fact, to warrant an unofficial endorsement from the treasurer as she reviewed the plans and saw that this would be no simple classroom.

"This is so much more," she said. "This is truly cool."

Baltimore's representatives chose the path of asking in the hopes of receiving, giving the board a request for $126 million.

But the total amount at stake was about $100 million, the traditional last quarter of the school construction money in the governor's budget proposal. The first 75 percent has already been designated for specific projects in the governor's proposal.

- Capital News Service Reporter Laura Schwartzman contributed to this report.

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