County Executive Steve Schuh is dedicating $300 million in his latest budget toward building new schools, a move he believes could be his legacy.
"My hope is that if our administration leaves behind any kind of legacy it will be that we set this county on a 30-year trajectory to double the number of high schools in this county," Schuh told The Capital Tuesday.
In a far-ranging discussion on his 2018 budget proposal, the top subject was county schools, both construction of facilities and the complicated deal to solve the school system's health coverage funding shortfall allowing a teacher pay increase.
Schuh said school construction, particularly pushing three new high schools, and keeping the school medical plan solvent, were the top priorities of the $1.5 billion operating, $1.2 billion school and $350 million capital budgets he unveiled Monday.
"This county was just dead in the water on high school construction," he said. "Now there are three new high schools in the long-term plan."
The three high schools are Crofton High School, set to begin construction next year, and two schools to replace the huge Old Mill High School, which are well down the line and just beginning the study and planning stage.
Money for six elementary schools, all under development, is also in the proposed 2018 budget.
Schuh, reflecting the high priority both sides of school funding held, said, "The biggest priority overall this year was the school system, to make sure health benefits fund continued to pay medical bills and did not become insolvent or lead to layoffs or furloughs."
The plan includes a one-time infusion of $22.5 million into the school's health care fund, plus diverting $10 million to the fund in the next two years. The county school system would kick in $8 million and school union members would pay more toward health coverage.
The one-time $22.5 million infusion needed approval from the state Board of Education, which came April 24.
"Once that program was approved by the state it cleared the path to implement the reform plan we proposed," Schuh said.
He said he had hoped the fix would come in a more organized fashion. He was of a mind the county should not commit any more money to the health care issue until there was complete agreement among all the parties on how "we were going to resolve things, together."
"That is nice to say but, in actual practice, very difficult rounding up that many cats on something this complicated," he said. "Things did not evolve the way I would have liked to have seen. But I am satisfied where we are."
He said he thinks the labor unions will approve the proposal.
"I am sure they don't love it, but they realize the reasonableness of it."
Schuh underscored the impact of that deal budget-wise.
"Unfortunately, even with the state's understanding of our predicament, it is still immensely expensive," he said. "And it led to compromises throughout the rest of the budget."
He noted the school funding decision will likely mean the county won't reach the goal of increasing the number of police officers to 800, and a comparable boost planned in the number of firefighting professionals.
"A large percentage of the budget, perhaps 70 percent, is personnel related," Schuh added. "And anything that diverts money to a given use invariably impacts either compensation or staffing levels elsewhere in government."
Schuh was most enthused about construction beginning on Crofton High School and progress being made on the long-term projects associated with two new high schools to replace Old Mill's gargantuan campus.
If the budget is passed, Crofton High School in 2018 will be given $56.7 million to begin construction. Old Mill is a longer term enterprise.
Kristin Etzel, the founder of the Fund Old Mill School Construction group, noticed Schuh mentioned continued work on the replacement schools in his budget address, but there was no money in the 2018 budget.
When asked, Schuh said there was planning money perhaps in another program.
"We are in late negotiations with a property owner to purchase the land," Schuh said. "The purchase is imminent, it will happen this year."
Some $14 million was appropriated last year to buy the land.
The project, listed as Old Mill West High School, is one facet to building two high schools, two middle schools and two elementary schools.
The planning for the massive undertaking is in its infancy, county education officer Analie Brandenberg explained after the interview with the county executive.
The master plan involves seven schools, 7,000 students and 349 acres.
"The amount of planning necessary on the front end, it's intense," she said.