State Comptroller Peter Franchot criticized Baltimore County leaders Wednesday for failing to use $7 million in school construction funds to air-condition schools.
Franchot, who welcomed a group of Middleborough Elementary children and their parents to Annapolis to testify before the Board of Public Works, asked the board to force the county to spend at least half of the money, which has come from the state alcohol tax, on air-conditioning.
But Gov. Martin O'Malley and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, the other board members, said that while they were sympathetic to the pleas from children and parents, they would not interfere with local decisions on school construction spending.
Baltimore County has the state's second-lowest percentage — 46 percent — of schools with air-conditioning, and no schools are slated to be updated this academic year. In Garrett County, only 27 percent of schools are air-conditioned.
A group of students from Middleborough Elementary School told the board that classroom temperatures sometimes are well above 90 degrees. "We don't want to sweat and leave school early. We need our air-conditioning so we don't feel tired," said Gregory Majerowicz, 7.
Franchot said he was "not here to assess blame" for a situation that has existed for years in the county, but he questioned County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and Superintendent Joe A. Hairston about their priorities. Franchot said that using the alcohol tax revenue to replace school lockers and stage lights wasn't as important as ensuring teachers and students can have a comfortable environment to work and study in.
"No kid has gotten sick from a broken locker," he said.
Kamenetz, who lobbied the school system for air-conditioning at Ridgely Middle School a little over a year ago and trumpeted his efforts in a TV commercial while running for county executive, defended the county's spending decisions. Noting that schools are not used throughout the year, he said roofs and windows, used every day, take precedence. He said air-conditioning all schools would cost about $400 million and there is not enough money available to do the work.
Hairston said that air-conditioning has been added to 27 schools during his 12-year tenure.
Franchot recommended installing window units in classrooms, a solution, he said, that had been used in Anne Arundel County, where all schools are now air-conditioned. Schools in Howard, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties are fully air-conditioned. Harford has 98 percent of its schools air-conditioned and Baltimore is at 50 percent.
Hairston said his philosophy has been to spend construction dollars on long-lasting, quality work rather than on short-term solutions such as window units. The $7 million will be spent on eight projects, including replacing windows, blinds and exterior doors at Glyndon, Chatsworth and Cedarmore elementary schools; replacing the roof at Randallstown High; and replacing lockers at Franklin High.
Pikesville Middle School will get new stage lighting at a cost of $200,000 and a locker room renovation for nearly $1 million. The largest expenditure — $3.3 million — would be to replace windows at Woodlawn High.
Franchot noted that all eight projects are in schools on the west side of the county. Kamenetz said the county's delegation to the General Assembly had decided that the money should be spent in the districts of delegates who voted for the alcohol tax. All of the projects, he said, were already top priorities for the school system.
Franchot said of the air-conditioning, "I get the impression it has never been a top priority, and I don't think it is today."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun