Maryland could soon allow state school construction money to be used for portable air conditioners in classrooms.
The Board of Public Works — comprising the governor, comptroller and treasurer — is expected to vote next week to lift the ban on using state school construction money for window units and other portable air conditioners. The rule change would then go to a legislative committee for review.
"Putting all the politics aside, this is something that is a cause for celebration and should be seen for what it is — a temporary but highly effective solution," said Comptroller Peter Franchot, who has advocated for the use of such units in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. Franchot said he will vote for the change in policy when the public works board meets next week.
Gov. Larry Hogan's staff wouldn't say how he would vote, but issued a statement pointing out that the Republican has supported Franchot on the matter in the past. Nancy K. Kopp, the state treasurer, did not respond to a request for comment.
The lack of air conditioning in public schools was highlighted when high temperatures forced Baltimore City and Baltimore County — the only jurisdictions with large numbers of schools without air conditioning — to dismiss students early at the start of this school year. Dozens of buildings in the jurisdictions lack air conditioning, and parents and teachers have complained about unbearable conditions during warmer months.
Franchot, a Democrat, has taken up the cause, holding town hall meetings to push Baltimore County to renovate schools or install portable units, as some other counties have.
He said Tuesday that he hopes Baltimore County and Baltimore City will elect to use some of the state construction money they receive to install air conditioners in sweltering classrooms. He estimated the cost of the units and associated electrical work would be about $9,700 per classroom.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, both Democrats, declined to comment on the proposed change. Sen. Roger Manno, co-chair of the committee that will be charged with reviewing the new rule, said only that the panel "will take a very long and thorough look at it."
Franchot and Hogan have publicly criticized Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz for not adding air conditioning fast enough and called on Kamenetz to attend a Board of Public Works meeting to explain himself.
Kamenetz, a Democrat, hasn't done that. He has publicly defended his record, saying he has steadily reduced the number of schools without air conditioning each year.
A spokeswoman for Kamenetz declined to discuss the possible change in state policy Tuesday. Baltimore County schools Superintendent Dallas Dance also declined to comment.
"At this time, he continues to work with our local and state funding partners to provide central air conditioning and overall renovations as soon as possible to the remaining schools that need these projects," said Mychael Dickerson, a spokesman for Dance.
Kamenetz has said he is against installing portable air conditioning units because the state wouldn't help pay for them. And they aren't a good use of tax dollars, he has said, because they are less durable than central air conditioning units and would require expensive electrical upgrades in older schools.
He has also said schools that get portable air conditioning units inevitably drop to the bottom of the priority list for full-scale renovations or replacements, and has asked the state to increase the amount of money it sends to Baltimore County for school construction so he can renovate schools more quickly.
Kamenetz shouldn't expect to see that money in Hogan's budget when it is released Wednesday because it would take money away from other jurisdictions, said Doug Mayer, a spokesman for the governor. He said Kamenetz's request was "not a real, feasible or logical plan."
At the beginning of this school year, 48 of the county's 175 school buildings lacked air conditioning. By the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, the school system projects that 37 of 174 buildings — about 21 percent — won't have air conditioning.
In Baltimore City, 76 schools — 46 percent — lack air conditioning. School officials are doing a cost analysis on installing window air conditioning units, said J. Keith Scroggins, the school system's chief operating officer.
Some Baltimore County parents are hoping Kamenetz and Dance will change their minds about portable air conditioners. They've started an online petition encouraging the school system to use state construction money to cool off hot classrooms.
"I see portable air conditioning units as a great and cost-effective temporary solution and if the state is willing to help pay for them, I think the county should take advantage," said Julie Sugar, a Baltimore County parent and co-founder of Advocates for Baltimore County Schools.