Baltimore County wants to speed up installation of air conditioning in schools

Could air-conditioning projects in Baltimore County be delayed?

A state school construction panel is expected to decide Thursday whether to grant Baltimore County a waiver that would allow it to speed installation of central air conditioning in 12 schools by the start of next school year.

Without the waiver, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's plan to reduce the number of schools without air conditioning from 37 to 12 would fall apart. He would have to decide whether the county should cover the entire cost of the $99 million project without state funding, or wait a year and get the assistance but incur the wrath of parents and state officials who have called on him repeatedly to install portable window units.

Kamenetz wrote to Gov. Larry Hogan on Tuesday asking for his support in seeking the waiver. Hogan appoints the members of the Interagency Committee on School Construction.

A Hogan spokesman, Doug Mayer, said the Interagency Committee, or IAC, is an independent board, but the governor supports the county executive's request and hopes committee members approve it.

"While the county executive's so-called plan doesn't come close to providing the immediate relief for our suffering students sought by the governor and the comptroller, in this case, something is better than nothing," Mayer said.

The county has closed 37 schools that are not air-conditioned on four days this school year because of hot weather, frustrating students and parents.

The county is requesting a waiver of the regulation that blocks school systems from getting state money for projects that are put out to bid before they are approved.

Essentially, the county is asking the state Department of General Services to review the design of the 12 projects before they are approved, and to allow the county to put the projects out to bid.

Joan T. Schaefer, acting executive director of the IAC, said it does not routinely grant such waivers, out of concern for setting a precedent.

Schaefer said the committee vote "could go either way." She said approval would not commit state officials to fund the 12 central air conditioning installation projects.

David Lever, the former executive director of the IAC, said designing central air-systems for schools is complex and time-consuming. A typical installation costs $6 million for an elementary school and $10 million for a high school.

If approved, he said, the waiver would be unusual, "but it is not unreasonable," given the effect the lack of air conditioning has on students.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

ecox@baltsun.com

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