Gov. Larry Hogan publicly rebuked Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises on Wednesday, accusing her of failing to live up to her commitments on a timetable to provide air conditioning to seven schools where students have been dismissed early this week as a result of the heat.
The governor opened a regularly scheduled meeting of the Board of Public Works with a broadside against what he called the “completely unacceptable” level of progress by Baltimore city and county in cooling their public schools. Amid this week’s “code red” heat wave, 10 county schools that lack air conditioning have remained closed, while more than 60 schools in the city closed three hours early on Tuesday and Wednesday — and will again Thursday.
The issue of sweltering schools has become a hot political issue as Hogan and Democratic challenger Ben Jealous have sought to assign blame for the closings with two months to go before Election Day.
Hogan focused his criticism on the city school system’s failure to complete the installation of air conditioning at seven of the more than five dozen schools that have closed early this week. Bolstered by transcripts of past Board of Public Works meetings, he pointed to assurances by Santelises that the $6 million project to cool the seven schools would be finished in time for the 2017-2018 school year.
“The superintendent came before us and made a commitment to the BPW that these problems were going to be fixed,” Hogan said.
But Santelises said the district noted in a May memo to state officials that some schools’ timelines needed an adjustment. As with most construction projects, Santelises said, unexpected roadblocks emerge, especially when dealing with the oldest school buildings in the state. One of those seven schools was given a historic designation that raised new complications. Others faced bid protests.
“What I find ironic is that if we were to have bypassed the bid protest, if we were to have bypassed the historical qualifications, if we had bypassed these regulations, then I would also be getting slammed for mismanagement,” Santelises said. “It’s not mismanagement. It’s people not reading their updates.”
Those seven schools only tell part of the story, she said. Under the district’s state-approved plan, air conditioning was installed in 12 school buildings in 2016 and 2017 and another 12 facilities will receive cooling systems this year. The five-year plan to implement air conditioning district-wide is largely on track, Santelises said.
“It’s not as if we were sitting around twiddling our thumbs and nothing has happened,” she said. “There are schools now that did not have to close because they do have AC.”
Years of underinvestment in Baltimore’s aging education infrastructure yields complex construction challenges that can’t be “talked away,” Santelises said. “We are going to have to confront the fact that there is compounded need in the buildings within Baltimore City.”
Still, the Republican governor pointed to statements by the city school system’s recently retired chief operating officer, Keith Scroggins, to the board in October 2017 that the work at the seven schools had been completed.
“It’s hard to keep up with the changing stories,” said Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse. “But the governor believed the testimony of school officials before the Board of Public Works that these projects would be completed long ago.”
Hogan also pointed to information provided by the state commission that oversees school construction in January reporting that the projects had not in fact been completed and that completion was expected by spring or summer.
“It’s not a false narrative,” Hogan said. “They’re facts. They’re on the record in their own words.”
A spokesperson for the city school system said late Wednesday that Scroggins, in his 2017 testimony, was referencing another set of schools that were being repaired on a different timetable.
The schools in question are the Lakewood Early Learning Center, along with Baltimore Polytechnic, Western, Frederick Douglass, Mergenthaler Vocational Technical, Edmondson-Westside high schools and the Northern Building, which houses Reginald F. Lewis High. The roughly $6 million approved for these seven schools was set aside for vertical packaged air conditioning units in individual classrooms.
The city school board last month approved a $1.7 million bid to provide air conditioning at Edmondson.
According to the district’s most recent schedule, the Northern building, Mervo and Lakewood are expected to have units installed later this calendar year. Their projects are in the construction phase.
Poly is expected to have air conditioning next school year, as are Western and Edmondson. Douglass’ process is being held up by the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, but is still expected to be completed this year.
Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot, the third member of the board and a frequent Hogan ally, criticized Edmondson’s contract and its approval by a new state commission that oversees school construction. He said it calls for spending $55,000 per classroom to cool the high school where the board had previously approved a plan calling for air conditioning Edmondson at a cost of $19,000 per classroom.
“I call that pillaging the taxpayers,” he said.
City schools spokeswoman Anne Fullerton said the district didn’t just have to pay for the units themselves, but the cost of upgrades to electrical systems and windows. Many schools weren’t equipped to handle such devices.
“We can’t just buy 50 room air conditioners and plug them all in,” she said. “These systems take a lot of power, and there was a need for upgrades.”
Additionally, the types of units the district purchased have the ability to both cool classrooms in the summer and heat them in the winter — a more dire need in Baltimore schools.
Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, a Democrat who is also a member of the three-person board, insisted that progress is being made.
“One of the problems that is quite real is that the city does not have the resources that Montgomery County or Baltimore County have to put into their share,” she said. Kopp said that where those counties might have more than $100 million to contribute to the budgets that cover such projects, the city is limited to something more like $20 million.
“That adds up,” she said. “That makes a difference.”
Jealous continued his criticism of Hogan’s role in dealing with the problem.
“Once again, we see Larry Hogan pointing fingers instead of providing solutions,” Jealous said in a statement. “At what point does the governor decide to come to the city, pull people together, and find a way to move forward so all our kids can finally start the school year?”
Jesse Schneiderman, a teacher at Douglass, said the window air conditioning unit in his classroom has been broken for years, making the first two days of school “pretty unbearably hot.”
Still, he said, his class has pressed on. In the sweaty conditions, they’ve reviewed the syllabus and gone through typical first-day icebreakers.
“Would they be concentrating more if it was temperate? Of course,” he said. “But we’re making it work.”
Chanel Parker’s first few days of school at Douglass have been hard to deal with, the senior said, with just one class equipped with a working air conditioning unit.
Parker spent the abbreviated school days “just thinking about going home to the AC and getting out of this heat.”
Baltimore County schools officials announced Wednesday that its eight non-air-conditioned schools and two centers would be closed again Thursday because of the heat. Since 2011, Baltimore County has reduced the number of schools without air conditioning from 90 to 10.
The city will also continue to close schools three hours early for a third straight day, a plan that allows them to provide free breakfast and lunch to students.