State lawmakers, concerned about having enough funding to build two needed elementary schools simultaneously in Frederick County, are gearing up to introduce legislation in Annapolis that could reduce the costs of building new schools.
At a joint meeting on Thursday of the delegation and the Frederick County Board of Education, school board members spoke of how certain state laws had trickled down to the Frederick County Public Schools system, and in many cases, complicated budgeting.
Of particular concern to many board members was a change in the law in 2014 that requires the school system to pay a higher wage to construction workers on some school construction projects where the state is contributing funding.
Under the prevailing law, passed in the 2014 session, if the state contributes at least 25 percent to a school building, and the project costs more than $500,000, the school system must pay the higher rate, which is the prevailing wage.
School board members and other elected officials have said this law, among others, has driven up the cost of school construction so severely that it’s difficult to complete the school construction by the dates outlined in the FCPS capital plan.
Recognition of this problem has spurred recent backlash in the community, as advocates in Urbana and western Frederick city lobby the board to ensure planned elementary schools in those areas are constructed on time.
Delegate Kathy Afzali, chairwoman of the county delegation, said at the meeting that she and Sen. Michael Hough, a fellow Republican, will file two bills. One would eliminate prevailing wage in Frederick County entirely. The other would push the threshold of prevailing wage to 50 percent. Under Afzali’s bill, if a state contributes 50 percent of a project, then local school systems would be required to pay a prevailing wage. This was the original threshold before the law was passed in 2014.
“It’s price-fixing, and I don’t think we need to go there as a state,” Afzali said. Hough did not attend the meeting.
Delegate Carol Krimm, a Democrat, said she will file a bill to form a task force to study all aspects of school construction. Krimm said she has met with the director of the state’s committee that deals with school construction, David Lever. The interagency committee on school construction falls under the Board of Public Works.
Krimm said this task force would examine prevailing wage, but also alternative solutions to school construction, such as public-private partnerships.
Superintendent Terry Alban addressed the College and Career Readiness and College Completion Act of 2013, which required that the school system ensure more high school students take advantage of dual enrollment, or in FCPS’ case, classes offered in coordination with Frederick Community College so the student can earn college credit.
The school system negotiated a reduced tuition rate with FCC for most students, but for students who are enrolled to receive free or reduced-price meals, the school system pays the tuition in full. In the fiscal 2016 budget, $75,000 was budgeted specifically for this purpose, Alban said.
That law also states that the school system must test high school juniors, beginning this year, with a test to determine if they are college- or career-ready.
Because the state pays for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exam, the controversial test that aligns with the state version of Common Core, the PARCC will be used to test the juniors, Alban said.
The law is one with good intentions behind it but also imposes “unfunded mandates,” she said.
“So often, I think our delegation thinks that this won’t have a fiscal impact, but it does,” Alban said, addressing the group. “Sometimes it does in ways we can’t always foresee.”
Also discussed at the meeting was Democratic Sen. Ron Young’s intent to refile a bill that would direct all schools to train one member of the staff in diabetes treatment, other than the school nurse. If a child were to go into a diabetic seizure, for instance, this staff member would be trained in how to administer a remedy.
This bill did not pass the legislative session. Though not formally opposed by the school board, members fretted about the prospective extra costs associated with the bill.