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Governor withholds school construction money over air conditioners

Rachel Baye

The fight over air conditioning in Baltimore County schools boiled over at Wednesday’s state Board of Public Works meeting.

The board voted to withhold school construction money from both the county and Baltimore City until the two jurisdictions release a plan for putting air-conditioning in every classroom by the start of the next school year.

The cost of not installing air conditioning in all public schools will be $10 million for Baltimore County and $5 million for Baltimore City.

But Gov. Larry Hogan said it’s not about the money.

“We have a $40 million surplus sitting in the bank in the Baltimore County School system, and they want to spend the money to fix the air conditioners,” he said. In Baltimore City, they’re receiving $1 billion through the 21st Century Schools program, so it’s not a matter of funding for them either.”

He referenced $10 million the Baltimore County School Board requested for window air conditioning units early this year. County Executive Kevin Kamenetz later rejected the request.

He said window units would come at the cost of a permanent central air conditioning system.

“Why would we ever waste money on a temporary Band-Aid when we’re going to put in the permanent cure?” he asked.

County Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance said the county plans to install central air conditioning in every school by the end of 2019.

He said the county was expecting $35 million from the state for school construction before Wednesday's decision. And he hasn’t given up hope on still getting all that money.

“I’m going to do everything in my power to advocate for every dollar for our school system,” Dance said. “I’ll go back and I’ll work with our Board of Education, work with our county to figure out what can we do to get that $10 million back for Baltimore County.”

A statement from Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s office said the board’s energy would have been better spent by increasing school funding and supporting student achievement.

State Treasurer Nancy Kopp, who sits on the Board of Public Works with Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot, called the action political theater and a travesty.

“I believe it’s also probably illegal for the Board of Public Works to decide to cram down its priority on the local planning system,” Kopp said.

David Lever, the executive director of the state agency that oversees school construction, agreed with Kopp — and was so upset he announced his resignation.

“Intervention by the state in telling the local boards what projects to submit, the kinds of projects, the scopes, and so forth, the priority, is really an intervention into their educational programs,” he said.

He said he doesn’t want to be part of that sort of intrusion into local decision-making.

Wednesday’s actions are just the latest in a long and heated political fight over air conditioning in Baltimore County.

Franchot and Kopp interrupted each other throughout the meeting. Hogan and Franchot took turns lambasting Kamenetz and the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly.

House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch said that for all the criticism, the board’s decision was pure politics, led by the Republican governor.

“I think if Baltimore County and Baltimore City were Republican jurisdictions, this wouldn’t take place,” he said.

In particular, Franchot criticized actions legislators took at the end of their session last month.

“In a smoke-filled, back room, they put language into the capital budget, of all things, allegedly to prohibit the use of state dollars for portable air conditioning units,” he said, in reference to a conference committee meeting where legislators ironed out their differences.

The board voted Wednesday to allow schools to buy the units despite the General Assembly’s actions.

Politics aside, Kenwood High School senior Keami Sullivan told the Board of Public Works she would rather have whatever solution gets her and her fellow students out of the heat fastest.

“It’s dangerous. I mean, kids are passing out, kids are going to the nurse,” she said. “My brother can’t even go to school because he has asthma, because it’s hot.”