School board tackles a hot topic in briefing on air conditioning

Baltimore County Public Schools worked to turn what had been generally a one-sided conversation about air conditioning in the county's aging schools into something of a dialogue at Wednesday's Board of Education meeting.

But for the students who sometimes endure triple-digit temperatures at the beginning and end of each school year, a presentation by school officials on the subject revealed that little can be done in the short term to cool classrooms.

"The goal of 'Team BCPS' right now is to get information to our community," Superintendent Dallas Dance said. "It's my belief and our staff's belief that we will actually share the information up front and honestly with the community so that we know the reality of what we face right now."

What they face, officials said, is a list of 46 schools without air conditioning — and tight fiscal constraints that limit how quickly the school system can act.

During the presentation, school officials touted that $1.4 billion has been invested in the school infrastructure since 1997 — an investment that school chief operation officer Michael Sines said has improved school buildings from "critical condition to one that is stable and secure."

A dozen schools have been included in the county's fiscal year 2014 bond referendum — which will be on the November ballot — to pay for air conditioning: Catonsville Elementary, Fort Garrison Elementary, Sudbrook Magnet Middle, Timonium Elementary, Franklin Elementary, Hebbville Elementary, Woodmoor Elementary, Middleborough Elementary, Middlesex Elementary and Sussex Elementary.

Two more, Arbutus Elementary and Hereford Middle, will be air conditioned as part of renovations, and four schools — Carroll Manor Elementary, Lutherville Lab Elementary, Elmwood Elementary, and Seven Oaks Elementary — are in phase one of an energy performance contract that includes air conditioning.

Additions and renovations to Stoneleigh Elementary and Hereford High cool those schools as well.

For the seven high schools, eight middle schools, and 31 elementary schools currently without air conditioning, school officials said a program piloted at Pikesville High last year would hopefully provide some relief.

All remaining schools, Sines said, will undergo a "physical exam" that targets the air flow and ventilation systems of the school. A similar exam at Pikesville found that the heating and ventilation systems were not properly functioning, and windows needed replacement.

School officials cited anecdotal evidence that some of the buildings' hottest rooms were slightly cooler, but a letter from Pikesville High PTSA President Lois Stern to the school board dated Sept. 19 said "there has been no significant improvement in the comfort level or heat/humidity index."

Some classes are cooler in the morning, but Stern wrote that many teachers and students reported that the humid air being circulated offset the temperature decreases.

Each school not scheduled for air conditioning will be examined by the beginning of school next year, Sines said. Air conditioning at all remaining schools would cost between $470 million and $600 million.

During the public comment session that preceded the presentation, parents and students from Dumbarton Middle School, Lutherville Lab Elementary and Reisterstown Elementary pleaded their case for air conditioning.

June Keating, a sixth-grade student at Dumbarton, told the board that fans are her school's only cooling option.

"The problem with fans is that teachers believe they're distracting, so they don't even turn them on," she said. "But believe me, it's even more distracting to be engulfed in the sickening heat of Dumbarton."

"Students will achieve more if they're relaxed, cool and happily learning in a comfortable classroom in September and June," said her classmate, Jaimie Durgin.

Robert Pegues, father of an eighth-grader at Dumbarton and wife of PTSA president Cheri Pegues, said the family had to purchase industrial fans for the cafeteria as a short-term fix.

Ana Coleman, PTSA president at Reisterstown Elementary, called the 100-plus degree temperatures "inhumane," while Renee Kozak, mother of a Reisterstown kindergarten student, said her daughter's first school experience should be a positive one, not one that's mired by the school's oppressive condition.

Lisa Ballard, a mother of two Reisterstown Elementary students and a Franklin Middle School student, said the humidity makes her children's teachers' papers damp and makes the kids' Crayons sweat.

Other than the results of the "physical exam," the board mentioned two other initiatives that could lead to short-term fixes.

Dance said he was examining the Superintendent's Rule regarding heat-related dismissals, and expects some resolution to that by the end of the school year.

Additionally, school board member David Uhlfelder motioned to prepare a measure that directs the state and county legislators to fully fund air-conditioning in schools that can support it. That motion passed unanimously.

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