As sweltering heat closes Maryland schools, Ben Jealous blames Gov. Larry Hogan

As sweltering weather forced the closing of 10 Baltimore County schools Tuesday, Gov. Larry Hogan blamed local officials for the hot buildings while his Democratic challenger in this year’s election said the Republican governor should take responsibility.

The first day of classes became an occasion for political finger-pointing over the continued lack of air-conditioning at dozens of school buildings in the county and Baltimore city, where schools without adequate cooling systems closed three hours early.

Hogan, who held a State House news conference on accountability in education, said in response to a question that the failure to equip all schools with air conditioning was “disgraceful.”

The Republican governor who is running for reelection in the Nov. 6 election noted that he and Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot have been putting pressure on city and county school officials to air-condition their schools for years.

“It’s just outrageous,” Hogan said.

But Democratic critics noted that Hogan has been in office for almost four years, contending that if he wanted to provide specific funding for that purpose he could have done so.

Ben Jealous, the former NAACP president challenging Hogan, said the lack of air conditioning speaks to Hogan’s “failure to lead.”

“This is not a time for a governor to be casting aspersions and throwing local leaders under the bus,” Jealous said. “This is a time for a governor to be on the ground, putting leaders together and figuring out how to fix this once and for all.”

Jealous vowed that as governor he would ensure that all schools have the funds they need for modern heating and cooling systems.

Del. Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat, attended the governor’s news conference and offered a rebuttal to Hogan.

“Where’s the governor’s proposal to fund air conditioning for each of these schools?” Luedtke said.

Air conditioning traditionally has not been treated as a separate item in state school budgets. Rather, it is lumped in with the overall state budget for school construction and maintenance, with local jurisdictions and school boards setting spending priorities.

Baltimore, with the oldest school buildings in Maryland, and Baltimore County have lagged most other counties in installing central air conditioning systems.

Over the past three years, Hogan and Franchot have consistently demanded that local leaders in the two jurisdictions speed up their plans for installing cooling systems — even if it means using individual room air conditioners as a stopgap.

But local officials — notably Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz before his death in May — have resisted that idea as being wasteful and often impractical. They decided to continue with plans to install central air conditioning as they renovate old schools or construct new ones.

The standoff led Hogan and Franchot to use their positions on the Board of Public Works to withhold money from both school systems — a move that prompted the General Assembly to strip the board of that power during the 2018 legislative session.

A spokeswoman for Hogan said the governor has repeatedly provided funding to allow Baltimore city and county to address their air conditioning problems.

“These are the only two jurisdictions with these persistent problems, and other systems such as Anne Arundel have successfully addressed it,” said spokeswoman Amelia Chasse.

Chasse also noted that in the case of Baltimore, the city school system has had to return about $66 million in state funding for building projects such as heating and air conditioning after the jobs became too expensive or took too long. She also said air conditioning projects scheduled to be completed this summer — after delays stretching back to 2017 — at seven city schools have not been finished.

“The governor has provided record funding for school construction and specific appropriations for air conditioning projects. Short of rolling up his sleeves and personally installing air conditioning units, it’s unclear what more Delegate Luedtke and Mr. Jealous are suggesting the governor should do,” she said.

The topic of air conditioning could remain in the thick of the political debate through the week — with high temperatures expected to remain over 90 degrees. The National Weather Service has predicted that “a combination of heat and humidity may result in heat index values of around 105 Tuesday through Thursday.”

In Baltimore City, the school system announced via Twitter early Tuesday that schools without air-conditioning would release three hours early. More than 60 school buildings lack air conditioning or have “inadequate cooling,” according to the city schools website.

The Baltimore County school system announced Monday that it was closing four high schools, four elementary schools and two special centers Tuesday. The alert was preceded by a tweet by the district’s chief of staff, Mychael Dickerson, announcing the decision.

His list included the high schools, elementary schools and centers that do not have air conditioning: Dulaney, Lansdowne, Patapsco and Woodlawn high schools; and Bedford, Berkshire, Colgate and Dundalk elementary schools. It also included Campfield Early Learning Center and Catonsville Center for Alternative Studies.

mdresser@baltsun.com

twitter.com/michaeltdresser

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