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Warm is not so welcome in Catonsville and Arbutus area classrooms

Lansdowne Elementary School was built in 1965. Earlier this week, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced a plan to build a new 700-seat school on the Alma Road campus.
Lansdowne Elementary School was built in 1965. Earlier this week, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced a plan to build a new 700-seat school on the Alma Road campus. (Staff photo by Ed Bunyan)

If you grew up in the Arbutus area 40 or 50 years ago, there's a good chance you never sat in air-conditioned classroom.

If you're a student living in Lansdowne or are Arbutus today, more than 30 years after cooling systems became mainstream at many institutions, there's still a good chance you don't know what sitting in a cool classroom on a hot day feels like.

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If you're a Catonsville public school student, there's a good chance you weren't taught in an air-conditioned room until you went to middle school or high school.

That is the case for China Williams' son, Felix Baum, a third-grader at Westowne Elementary School.

The situation in every classroom at Westowne is different, Williams said.

The direction the windows face, the height of the ceiling and the presence of glass-block windows all factor into how hot and muggy the room gets when it's hot out, she said.

But even the rooms in the best positions get hot.

"On average, we run about 5 to 10 degrees hotter than the temperature outside," Williams said.

And when the humidity factors in, the situation is even worse, she said. A stay-at-home mom, Williams said she has gone to the school and picked her son up early on multiple occasions because she was worried about how hot the building was.

Earlier this month, during one spell of particularly hot weather, Williams said she was notified by a teacher at the school that the temperature in the school at 9 a.m. was 86 degrees. The humidity, she said, was measured at 84 percent.

"It's not just that it's hot and the kids have to be in a hot room to learn," she said. "Once you get above 60 percent [humidity], then you're just walking into a petri dish environment."

Luckily for her son, Williams noted, Westowne is one of the schools slated to get a new building next year. However, many other students at other schools aren't so lucky.

On Oct. 6, parents are invited to voice their concerns to the Maryland State Comptroller Peter Franchot in a public meeting in Arbutus on the temperature conditions of the county's schools.

Currently, 48 schools in Baltimore County do not have air conditioning, including nine in the Arbutus and Catonsville areas.

As County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said in a recent press conference, that's down from the 52 percent of schools that were without air conditioning in 2010. The county executive said he has a plan to get air conditioning in 99-percent of the county's schools by 2021 and has asked for more state funding to help get the project done faster.

In the southwest area, Baltimore Highlands, Catonsville, Edmondson Heights, Lansdowne and Westowne elementary schools are not air conditioned.

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Arbutus Middle School and Southwest Academy also do not have air conditioning, along with Catonsville Alternative Center and Lansdowne High School, according to records from the school system.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Franchot put a new spotlight on the lack of air conditioning at many Baltimore County schools on Sept. 16, when the pair used the meeting of the Board of Public Works to publicly chastise the Baltimore County school system and county government for failing to air condition all of its more than 160 schools.

"Clearly, it's not a question of resources," Franchot said, according to The Baltimore Sun. Over the past six years, he said, the state has provided $27 million in funds for school improvements.

"It's a question of leadership, management and priorities," he said. "They seem completely disinterested in dealing with this problem."

District 1 Councilman Tom Quirk said the governor's and the comptroller's criticism amount to little more than "political grandstanding," the latest in a feud between Kamenetz, a Democrat and potential gubernatorial candidate, and Hogan since Kamenetz issued a statement in June criticizing the governor's decision to cancel the Red Line.

"The fact of the matter is, we are aggressively trying to solve this problem," Quirk said.

He calling the statements by Hogan and Franchot "pure politics."

Faced with aging school infrastructure around the county, Quirk said the county executive and the county council have been trying to solve the issue in a fiscally responsible way, choosing to replace school buildings where possible, instead of just adding air conditioning units to deteriorating buildings.

In fact, Quirk, chairman of the council's Spending Affordability Committee, said the county has been pushing its debt capacity in recent years to ensure that the school system is getting the necessary funds.

If the comptroller and the governor are so bothered by the pace of Baltimore County's school infrastructure upgrades, he said, they should do more to help.

"What I would ask is for both of them to do dollar for dollar matching," he said.

"Perhaps they should put more of their money where their mouth is," he added.

On Oct. 6, Franchot will discuss the lack of school air conditioning during a session at the Arbutus Town Hall, 1349 Stevens Ave.

It is the first of three meetings he plans to have around Baltimore County to discuss the issue, said Michelle Byrnie-Parker, deputy director of the comptroller's office of communications, in an email.

Parents and community members from schools lacking air conditioning on the west side of the county are encouraged to attend, she said.

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