Baltimore County school board to consider eliminating heat closure policy

Baltimore County's Board of Education on Tuesday night will consider deleting a contentious heat closure policy at the recommendation of school system staff.

The policy, which the board approved last August, directs the superintendent to close all non-air-conditioned county schools when the heat index is forecast to reach at least 90º by 11 a.m. the following day. If the heat index is predicted to reach 90 degrees by 3 p.m., parents can chose to keep students home for what the system will consider an excused absence.

The board passed the policy in response to parents whose children attend schools in the county that lack air conditioning. The parents have said that the conditions in school buildings on hot days negatively affects students' health and academic performance.

The original policy, which the board approved Aug. 9, closed schools if the heat index was projected to reach 90 degrees at any time during the following day. It was amended to add the time constraints on Aug. 30 after all non-air conditioned schools in the county were closed for two of the first five days of the 2016-2017 school year.

The policy was reviewed by county schools staff at the request of the board's Policy Review Committee, which is composed of four members of the 12-member board of education and makes recommendations to the full board on policy matters. Staff are recommending the deletion of the policy.

Marisol Johnson, a board member who sits on the Policy Review Committee, said the policy was crafted last year in response to demands from the community following a dispute between public officials over purchasing portable air conditioning units for schools that lack central air conditioning.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot wanted Baltimore County to place portable window units in non-air conditioned schools to cool classrooms in hot weather, while County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said spending the money to install such units would be a waste, as he is pushing forward with a plan to provide central air conditioning to schools that lack it.

The staff is recommending the deletion of the policy for two reasons, according to Baltimore County Public Schools Chief of Staff Michele Prumo, who spoke at a March 13 meeting of the board's policy review committee. Superintendent Dallas Dance already has the authority to close, delay, or dismiss schools in emergency situations, which include inclement weather, excessive heat and building system failure, Prumo said.

In addition, restricting the superintendent's discretion to close schools "may have a negative impact on end-of-year school activities," according to the system's analysis of the policy. When schools are closed, the accompanying after-school activities, such as end-of-the-year celebrations and sporting events, are also canceled.

Johnson said that the policy's intention was to force the superintendent's hand when it comes to school closures. Though she voted for the policy, she believes Dance was doing a good job of closing schools as needed before the policy, saying that her vote was in reaction to community input.

The policy has been ineffective, she said, and has had the trickle-down effect of canceling sports games when schools close on hot days.

"We're going to see it even more this year if we don't delete the policy," she said.

The Policy Review Committee approved the proposed deletion in a 3-1 vote March 13. The full board will consider the deletion at its meeting Tuesday night.

Board member Kathleen Causey, who represents councilmanic District 3, which includes Dulaney High School, voted against the deletion at the committee meeting. Dulaney is among the county schools that lacks central air conditioning.

"I am adamantly opposed to [the policy] being deleted," Causey said. "It was developed over nine months with intense community support and interest. And when it was approved in early August of 2016 the community was very grateful for it."

The board will meet at 6:30 p.m. at 6901 Charles Street, building E on Tuesday. To view an agenda for the meeting go to www.bcps.org/board.

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