Friday, October 31, 2008

What's this about "lower costs for school construction"?

In its editorial yesterday, “Ballot offers voters chance for input on school board,” the Capital repeats Tricia Johnson’s claim that she “lowered costs for school construction.” I’d love to know specifically what Tricia Johnson is referring to when she makes this claim. Ms. Johnson also featured this claim in her testimony before the SBNC on April 14, 2008, but there were no details provided to back up the claim. I hope she isn’t referring to the high profile Blue Ribbon Commission on School Construction costs. That document was a joke. I have an MBA from the Harvard Business School and worked as a senior research assistant writing cases for Harvard Business School and other business students. I cannot imagine giving a student even a “C” for the quality of the analysis represented in that report.

The report authors blamed the architects for the high cost of Anne Arundel County’s schools. The architects?!?! How politically convenient! Did anyone from the Capital ever read that report? Why did the county and school system never publicly release it? Were they embarrassed by the highly politicized questions the report authors asked and the infantile analysis that inevitably followed? Perhaps not, given the number of times Board of Education members have claimed credit for following the report’s recommendations.

What we now have in Anne Arundel County is incredibly high priced schools that look only a cut above prisons and will have outsized maintenance costs far into the future. Why is it okay for the Anne Arundel County Government and Community College to design good looking buildings while the schools have to look like prisons and use poor construction materials so the County taxpayers will think the Board of Education is fiscally prudent? Ditto for private K12 schools in Anne Arundel County, who still manage to build much better designed school buildings at lower cost. The best public school districts, in my experience, build school buildings that the community can be proud of.

Can anyone recall an oversight hearing that this school board has held on AACPS construction or maintenance costs? I cannot. But isn’t that one of the major functions of legislative bodies—to conduct oversight hearings on issues of overriding importance to the community? If Tricia Johnson or Teresa Birge want to address the County’s construction and maintenance problems, they can begin by conducting some oversight hearings and asking some tough questions (preferably televised with the Board of Education’s—get this—$400,000 boardroom TV studio). Do they have the intelligence to do so? Sure. Do they have the political will to do so? There is nothing in their track record that says “yes.”

--Jim Snider

P.S. I’m considering making a video clip and placing it on YouTube of Tricia Johnson’s claim before the SBNC that lowering construction costs was one of her prime achievements while serving on the Board of Education. But the really interesting part of her interchange with the SBNC was not her boast but the SBNC’s reply. None of the SBNC commissioners followed up with a question about how she accomplished this wondrous feat and what it indicates about her vision for the future of the physical spaces where our kids spend their days and our communities congregate. Clearly, for all the candidates’ talk about the importance of school construction and maintenance (both Ms. Johnson and Ms. Birge said that school construction would be one of their top three priorities as board members), it was not an issue the SBNC commissioners genuinely understood or cared about. And what about all the school board rhetoric during the last five years about the importance of construction and maintenance? During that period the school budget increased by more than 40% (with no increase in student enrollment) while maintenance expenditures (“maintenance of plant”) actually shrunk.

What would have been the most revealing question the SBNC commissioners could have asked to reveal the candidates’ true priorities as Board of Education members? Here is a go: “Ms. Johnson and Ms. Birge: Both of you in your testimony and applications have stated that one of your highest priorities is school construction costs. Last year Maryland State refused to give the Board of Education an extra $10 million for school construction because the Board of Education would not allocate an additional $40 million in matching funds. If you were faced with this decision again, would you spend the $40 million to get the $10 million? If so, what would you cut to raise the $40 million? It’s unlikely the candidates would have answered the question. But at least the question would have signaled that the SBNC was doing its job.

No comments: