State restores school construction money for Baltimore city, Baltimore County

Board of Public Works releases school construction money that was withheld from Baltimore City & County.

The state's Board of Public Works reinstated $10 million of school construction money for Baltimore city and Baltimore County Wednesday, after the school districts presented plans to install air conditioning in overheated classrooms.

The city plans to cool all of its schools within five years, and the county has plans to install air conditioning within four years.

"We really appreciate the effort," Gov. Larry Hogan told city schools CEO Sonja Santelises.

But Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot were less enthusiastic about Baltimore County's plans.

"I have some healthy skepticism … I think the jury is still out," Franchot told county schools Superintendent Dallas Dance.

The discussion came as the board, which also includes Treasurer Nancy Kopp, held its annual "begathon," in which superintendents from around the state are summoned to Annapolis to discuss their requests for school construction money.

The total state budget for school construction is $334 million. The board was discussing the first 75 percent of that amount — $213 million. The requests are for the budget year that begins July 1.

School superintendents were called before the board in alphabetical order to pitch their plans and answer questions, a process expected to last well into the afternoon.

In the current budget year, the board withheld $5 million from the city and $10 million from the county over the lack of air conditioning in schools.

Kopp, a Democrat who often finds herself at odds with Hogan and Franchot, said she was "delighted" to join in the votes to restore all of the city's withheld money and half of the county's money.

"I think it was a mistake in the first place," Kopp said.

Hogan, a Republican, and Franchot, a Democrat, have repeatedly berated the city and county for their slow progress in installing air conditioning. Baltimore city and Baltimore County are the only school districts in the state with a large number of schools without air conditioning.

Franchot said he believes the city's and county's improved plans for adding air conditioning would not have happened if not for his and the governor's advocacy at Board of Public Works meetings.

Hogan and Franchot have pushed for the use of portable air conditioners, but Baltimore County has balked, preferring to spend money on permanent central air conditioning. Installing central air takes longer than installing portable units.

After Hogan and Franchot's repeated criticism last year, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced plans to accelerate the installation of air conditioning so that all schools will be cooled by 2021.

By this fall, all but 13 county schools will have air conditioning. Most of the remaining schools will undergo significant renovations or will be rebuilt.

Baltimore city's plan will use a combination of portable air conditioning units and split-unit systems that include both air conditioning and heating, Santelises told the Board of Public Works.

But in order to install air conditioning, some fire safety and roof repair projects will be delayed, Santelises said. She emphasized, however, that students would not be put in unsafe buildings.

High schools that don't have air conditioning will receive portable air conditioning units, while elementary schools and elementary-middle schools will get the split-unit systems.

Santelises noted that heating problems force schools to close more often than air conditioning problems.

After the meeting, Santelises said she was pleased to receive the $5 million that had been withheld.

"The real win is for the city, and that we now have an example of what it means to come together around something," she said.

Santelises said the school system will need to figure out which projects to spend the money on.

"The release of this $5 million will allow us to get some vital infrastructure projects done," she said. "It's a big deal."

Baltimore County, likewise, will need to evaluate how to spend the money that is being released, Dance said. He said he plans to return to the Board of Public Works to offer more details on how the final 13 schools will get air conditioning, in hopes of getting the rest of the money that was withheld.

"We're excited to get the $5 million back but as I shared with the governor, I hope we can add $5 million to that very soon," he said.

While money was restored for Baltimore city and Baltimore County, the board withheld from Howard County $9.6 million of next year's school construction money.

Hogan said he was not satisfied with Howard Superintendent Renee Foose's answers to questions about how a mold problem at one of the county's schools has been handled.

Hogan indicated the money could be restored after the board reviews a report on the issue that's forthcoming and "we can really assess what's going on with the mold issue."

pwood@baltsun.com

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