Kamenetz says Baltimore County will accelerate air conditioning for schools

Baltimore County students could get air-conditioning sooner than expected.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said Wednesday that the county would speed the installation of air conditioning by providing tens of millions of dollars in funding so all elementary and middle schools will have central air by fall 2017.

The new money would essentially move up the installation by a year for all but a few schools.

The announcement comes a week after the state Board of Public Works voted to withhold school construction funds from Baltimore and Baltimore County unless local officials installed portable air conditioning units in all classrooms by the start of the next school year.

The Board of Public Works vote, led by Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot, intensified the battle between state and local officials over the best way to cool hot classrooms— and prompted the resignation of the state's top school construction official.

"What Governor Hogan did last week was illegal and irresponsible," Kamenetz said. "It's such silliness on the governor's part to punish the Baltimore region."

Kamenetz, who has said that portable air conditioners are a poor use of tax dollars, said his plan to accelerate the installation of central air is financially prudent. He said it would be logistically impossible to install portable air conditioners this summer.

Kamenetz's plan involves adding $83 million for speeding installation. About $20 million will come from the school system's expected surplus at the end of the fiscal year in July, $19 million from the county's surplus and $44 million from issuing bonds.

He said the county would ask the state to reimburse the $44 million out of its school construction funds.

To move forward, the plan will need the approval of the County Council, which is scheduled to vote on the budget next week.

In Baltimore, acting schools CEO Tammy L. Turner asked the Board of Public Works this week to reconsider what she called the "punitive and unreasonable" vote. A spokesman for Franchot dismissed her letter.

County schools Superintendent Dallas Dance, who announced the plan to surprised members of the County Council during a budget hearing Wednesday, said it addresses the problem "the right way."

"This will mean every single school will have a long-term solution," he said.

"That's incredible," Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond responded. "Thank you so much!"

Under the plan, all elementary and middle schools would have air conditioning by the fall of 2017, save for a few schools that are getting new buildings that won't be complete by then.

High schools would get air conditioning by the fall of 2018, except for four high schools that are getting major renovations to be complete in 2019: Lansdowne, Dulaney, Woodlawn and Patapsco.

"This is an extraordinary investment in our schools," said Yara Cheikh, a mother of a Dulaney student who has pushed for upgrades to that school. "The county executive is forward-funding air conditioning with the necessary upgrades because it makes economic sense. The governor did not engage in discussing long-term solutions with state dollars. This is good news for our students and county."

Lily Rowe, a parent who has helped lead a campaign arguing for portable air conditioners, was less impressed. Even with the quicker timeline, she said, schools still need an interim solution until the work is completed.

"I am very happy that the county executive is accelerating his long-term plan, but it doesn't eliminate the need for an emergency management solution," she said.

Rowe said she didn't trust that the school system will be able to complete the air conditioning projects as quickly as it says it will.

"I have serious doubts," she said.

Abby Beytin, president of the county teachers union, said the quicker pace of installations would be "great news" for teachers.

Councilman Tom Quirk also was pleased.

"It's another example of Baltimore County doing everything it can to get the air conditioning and infrastructure issues fixed expeditiously," the Catonsville Democrat said. "Clearly, Baltimore County is putting its money where its mouth is."

Councilman David Marks walked a fine line in his response.

"I'll ignore the press release directed solely at Governor Hogan and simply thank the county executive for advancing the funding," the Perry Hall Republican said. "The public wants us to work together."

Franchot and Hogan did not immediately offer support for Kamenetz's plan.

Franchot spokesman Peter Hamm said the comptroller had not been contacted by the county executive or reviewed the plan.

"We'll definitely take a close look at it, try not to be affected by the insults and complaints, and see if there is anything to say," Hamm said in a statement.

A spokesman for Hogan said the plan would still leave many children in hot classrooms in 2019.

"It's nice to see the county executive finally taking this issue seriously," spokesman Douglass Mayer said in a statement. "Hopefully, the delays, setbacks and broken promises that have kept Baltimore County students in sweltering conditions for years won't continue to resurface."

Hogan and Franchot have battled with Kamenetz over air conditioning since the start of the school year.

When school opened, 48 of the county's 175 public school buildings lacked air conditioning. Kamenetz planned to add central air conditioning to all by 2021.

In January, the Board of Public Works gave initial approval to a regulation to allow state school construction money to be spent on portable air conditioning. State rules had previously banned state spending on the air conditioners.

Then Democratic leaders in the General Assembly wrote language into the state budget saying that state money could be spent only according to the rules in place on Jan. 1 — before the Board of Public Works adopted its regulation.

The Board of Public Works then gave final approval to the regulation last week, against the advice of the state attorney general's office, which cautioned that the maneuver might be illegal.

Lawyers for the Board of Public Works and the General Assembly have issued conflicting opinions, each asserting that their body has the final say over how to spend state money.

The city and county are the only jurisdictions in Maryland with a significant number of schools that lack air conditioning.

The 2-1 vote by the Board of Public Works last week to withhold school construction money was widely criticized as interference by the state government in what are normally local decisions.

Kamenetz said he did not develop his new plan in response to the board's decision to withhold the money.

"The real issue is the governor withheld $10 million of state money as ransom so we would capitulate and install window units," he said. He called the action "callous behavior."

The vote prompted the resignation of David Lever, executive director of the Interagency Committee on School Construction — a nonpartisan state agency that recommends which projects the state should fund.

At a meeting Wednesday, the committee refused to decide which projects to cut funding from and sent the matter back to the Board of Public Works for action.

Officials said school construction dollars are not given to local governments in lump sums, but for specific construction projects.

"The IAC doesn't make the decisions for the counties about what their priorities are," committee member Barbara Hoffman said. "If they want to withhold $10 million from the county, then they need to decide where that is going to come from."

Hoffman said the IAC did not want to get in the middle of a political dispute.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lizbowie

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
28°