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Franchot, NAACP seek DOJ action on school air conditioning

Latest in school air conditioning debate: Franchot & NAACP seek Dept. of Justice intervention.

Comptroller Peter Franchot and the NAACP are asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the lack of air conditioning in public schools in Baltimore city and Baltimore County.

In a letter sent Monday, Franchot and Gerald Stansbury, president of the state NAACP, said many of the students in schools without air conditioning come from low-income families. Studying in hot schools amounts to "a blatant neglect of their civil rights," Franchot and Stansbury wrote.

"These students deserve to have the same educational experience as Maryland students who are privileged to live in more affluent communities," the men wrote. "It's time that these issues are addressed, and we respectfully hope you concur."

The Department of Justice would not comment on the request Wednesday.

Baltimore City schools officials defended their efforts to install air conditioning amid other pressing facilities issues, such as broken boilers and furnaces, leaky roofs and poor plumbing.

"We manage our limited facilities and capital budgets to address prioritized student safety concerns," the school system said in a statement. "Despite these challenges, we are providing air conditioning in all new and renovated buildings under the 21st Century School Buildings Plan and are installing air conditioning on an accelerated timeline in other buildings across the city."

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz also defended his efforts install air conditioning more quickly.

Baltimore County announced this year that it would speed up its efforts to air condition schools. Currently, 36 schools lack air conditioning and most schools will receive air conditioning in 2017 and 2018 under the an accelerated plan announced by Kamenetz earlier this year.

"We've gone from 90 schools without air in 2011 down to 13 schools next year, and then to 0. By any standard, that is historic progress," said Kamenetz, a Democrat.

Franchot, a Democrat, and Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, have repeatedly criticized Baltimore city and Baltimore County for their pace of installing air conditioning. They've said the school systems should install portable air conditioners, but the city and county have stuck by their plans to install central air conditioning.

Earlier this year, Franchot and Hogan voted to withhold millions of state school construction money from the county and the city over the air conditioning issue. They withheld $5 million from the city.

Baltimore Sen. Bill Ferguson, a critic of that decision, said he hopes the Department of Justice investigates that decision.

"I think that they will find that the irresponsible and irrational decision to withhold millions of dollars in capital funding for the state's lowest-income school district is in fact, itself, a likely violation of students' rights," said Ferguson, a Democrat.

Ferguson also questioned why Franchot would solicit a federal review of the matter rather than asking Hogan to issue an executive order creating an emergency fund to pay for the air conditioning. Ferguson noted that Hogan used an executive order to require school systems to start school after Labor Day.

"If the governor has the authority to change school calendars, he certainly bears responsibility of not solving the problem of un-air-conditioned school buildings," Ferguson said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

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