State board withholds city, county school money over air conditioning dispute

Officials to hold back millions in school construction money for Baltimore Co. and city over air conditioning.

The state Board of Public Works has voted to hold back millions of dollars in school construction money from Baltimore and Baltimore County unless officials there install air conditioning in all classrooms by the start of the next school year.

The vote, led by Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot, was the latest salvo in a battle over cooling hot classrooms in the city and the county — and prompted the resignation of the state's top school construction official.

The city and county are the only jurisdictions in Maryland with a significant number of schools that lack air conditioning. Officials in both have said they plan to install central air conditioning over several years. Hogan, who chairs the Board of Public Works, and Franchot have urged immediate spending for portable air-conditioning units in the interim.

Hogan, a Republican, said "it is outrageous and it is disgraceful" that the two school districts still have classrooms without air conditioning.

"The time for playing games is over," said the governor. He proposed "fencing off" $10 million of the school construction money slated for Baltimore County and $5 million from Baltimore's allocation.

He was supported by Franchot, a Democrat.

"We're not cutting" the funding, he said. "You can have it. Just do the right thing."

The third member of the board, Treasurer Nancy Kopp, a Democrat, voted against withholding the money. She said the action smacked of political theater.

"This is a travesty," Kopp said. "I believe it's also probably illegal for the Board of Public Works to decide to cram down its priority on the local planning system."

The 2-1 vote to withhold the money prompted the resignation of David Lever, executive director of the Interagency Committee on School Construction — a nonpartisan state agency that recommends which projects the state should fund.

Lever called the vote a "politicization of a process that really needs to be professional and objective."

The board meeting included testy exchanges between Franchot and Hogan on one side and Kopp on the other. More than a dozen parents and students spent an hour detailing conditions in hot classrooms and their frustration in trying to get the problem fixed.

Franchot's office helped coordinate their appearance in Annapolis.

When the school year began in Baltimore County, 48 of the 175 public school buildings — 27 percent — lacked air conditioning. Lily Rowe, a parent, said putting kids into classrooms without air conditioning amounts to "institutionalized child abuse."

"This entire thing is a complete disaster," she said. She supports portable air conditioners as an interim fix.

Baltimore County is scheduled to receive about $35 million in state funding for school construction. The $10 million would come out of that total.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who did not attend Wednesday's meeting, said he has no intention of following the Board of Public Works' directive.

Kamenetz, a Democrat, has outlined what he called "a well thought-out plan" to install central air conditioning in all county schools by the end of 2019 — "a permanent solution to our twin dilemmas of rising enrollment and aging infrastructure."

Kamenetz said spending money on portable air conditioners as a short-term fix would not be fiscally responsible. He said the governor wants to "prioritize politics over building 21st-century schools."

In Baltimore, 76 schools — or 46 percent — lack air conditioning. A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called the board's vote disappointing but wouldn't say whether the city would try to comply with the directive.

Spokesman Anthony McCarthy said the mayor is working with school officials on the issue.

Rawlings-Blake "believes it would have been a more productive use of the board's energy to spend time identifying ways to increase funding for our public schools and to support student achievement," McCarthy said in a statement.

City school officials issued a statement saying the withholding of $5 million "places many key initiatives including fire safety projects, roof replacements, and important systemic projects in jeopardy."

The statement said it would cost "more than $25 million to comply with the directive from the Board of Public Works — money that the district does not have. It is further impractical to mandate that we install portable air units in 2,000 classrooms by September."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which has pushed for more funding for the city's aging school buildings, said Hogan and Franchot are "asking city schools to do the impossible."

Frank Patinella, a senior education advocate for the chapter, said schools have competing needs — including leaky roofs, broken heating systems and inoperable fire alarms — and not enough money.

"If the governor cares about city students, he should ensure that funding is available to address all of those needs," Patinella said.

Lever, whose resignation will take effect in September, has led the state school construction review process since 2003.

He said the board has never made such a move, and it was unclear how it could be implemented. State construction money is allocated to specific projects, not in a lump sum. The board did not say which projects would have money withheld.

He said he was frustrated that Hogan wouldn't let anyone from the city or county districts speak at Wednesday's meeting. Kopp tried to call on Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance, but Hogan would not allow it.

"The disrespect with which these dedicated, serious officials were treated at the meeting of May 11 is no less than astonishing," Lever wrote in his resignation letter.

Dance said after the meeting that the county already has accelerated its plan for central air conditioning from 2021 to 2019.

"I am three years out from a long-term solution for every classroom in the county," he said. "I stand by the plan ... because I'm so close to the finish line.

"Losing $10 million hurts me."

Dance said some of the money he expected to receive from the state was going to be used for designing air-conditioning projects in schools. He said it doesn't make sense to spend money on both portable air conditioners and central air conditioning.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, called the votes by the Board of Public Works "childish."

"I think if Baltimore County and Baltimore City were Republican jurisdictions, this wouldn't take place," he said.

Busch and the General Assembly have been involved in a related tussle regarding air conditioning.

Lawmakers approved a measure this year to block school districts from spending state construction money on portable air conditioners. They were responding to a preliminary vote by the Board of Public Works in January to allow it.

Franchot and Hogan said the lawmakers' vote was secretive and inappropriate. They voted Wednesday to finalize the regulation.

Kopp also voted against that measure, which she called "very bad public policy."

School activists and members of the Interagency Committee on School Construction expressed surprise and dismay over Lever's resignation.

Yara Cheikh, a mother of four in Baltimore County, said Lever always treated government officials and activists with respect.

"We lost one of the most transparent, genuine and intelligent leaders in state government," she said.

Former state Sen. Barbara Hoffmann, a member of the Interagency Committee, said Lever ran the analysis of school construction spending fairly.

"We've been very careful not to politicize these decisions," Hoffman said. "I've never seen this — something that was so obviously political."

Baltimore Sun reporters Michael Dresser and Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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