State OKs waiver allowing Baltimore County air conditioning to move forward

Baltimore County's school air-conditioning plan remains on track following key state approval.

Plans by Baltimore County to speed the installation of air conditioning at public schools got a boost from a key state panel on Thursday.

The state's Interagency Commission on School Construction voted unanimously to award a waiver to the county that will keep the plan on track.

"We are pleased they have the confidence in our plan," County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said Thursday. "We can start the planning process now."

Thirty-six schools in Baltimore County lack central air conditioning. Officials have canceled classes four days this school year for excessive heat.

Kamenetz, a Democrat, and Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, have differed over plans to install air conditioning. Students and parents have been frustrated by hot classrooms and canceled classes.

The waiver allows Baltimore County officials to solicit bids for installation at the next 12 schools before they receive approval from the state for the work. Those schools are: Franklin and Kenwood high schools; Arbutus, Golden Ring, Middle River and Stemmers Run middle schools; Southwest Academy; and Battle Grove, Charlesmont, Church Lane, Orems and Reisterstown elementary schools.

When the Board of Public Works releases state construction funding in January, Kamenetz said, the county will be able to award contracts and get the work started.

County schools Superintendent Dallas Dance said the commission's vote will allow the county "to continue working diligently to provide central air conditioning in all of our schools as soon as possible."

Hogan supported the waiver request. But he said air-conditioning plans in Baltimore County and Baltimore City are insufficient.

"We dole out hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in school construction money to the local governments," he said, "and they seem to be very unresponsive to concerns about the welfare of some students."

Hogan, who controls school construction money as a member of the state Board of Public Works, wants Kamenetz to install portable air conditioners while pursuing a long-term fix.

Kamenetz says portable air conditioners would be a poor use of taxpayer money and would overburden some schools' electrical systems.

Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat on the Board of Public Works, withheld millions of dollars in state school construction money from Baltimore County and Baltimore City this year over air conditioning.

Without the waiver, the county would have had to absorb millions more dollars in cost, or the construction timeline would have been pushed back.

Under Kamenetz's plan, all but 12 schools are to have central air conditioning by next fall.

The remaining schools, including six with new buildings, and four high schools scheduled to undergo significant renovations, are to have it in 2018 or 2019.

pwood@baltsun.com

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