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County school board seeks $10 million for air-conditioned classrooms

In an attempt to speed efforts to provide air conditioning to all schools in Baltimore County, the school board voted this week to put an additional $10 million in next year's operating budget.

The last-minute addition came days before the state Board of Public Works is expected to lift a ban on using state school construction money for portable air-conditioning units.

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Only 48 of the county's 174 school buildings were not air-conditioned at the beginning of the school year.

Using state and county funds, the district is expected to reduce the number without air conditioning to 37 schools by the beginning of next school year and to 19 by June of 2017.

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Parents and board members have pushed to speed that process, saying they don't believe Superintendent Dallas Dance's budget is getting the job done quickly enough. It's unusual for school boards to add money to a budget after the superintendent has presented it to the public.

The school budget will be submitted to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and the County Council for approval. Kamenetz could remove the $10 million.

"Any budget discussions are premature," said Donald Mohler, a spokesman for Kamenetz. If the county convinces the state to accelerate funding for the air conditioning, Mohler said, all schools will be air-conditioned by 2019.

Parents and teachers have complained for years about the lack of air conditioning and a proposed policy that would close schools that don't have it only when the temperature outside reaches 95 degrees.

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School board member Marisol Johnson requested the funding as a one-time expenditure. She said it would not be wise to redirect money in the budget from classroom instruction to air conditioning.

Board member Kathleen Causey suggested Tuesday that the board restrict the use of the $10 million for portable air-conditioning units, but her motion failed.

Other board members said they did not want to get in the middle of a political battle between Comptroller Peter Franchot, who has proposed portable air conditioning, and Kamenetz, who says money spent on stopgap measures is wasted.

School superintendents have said in the past that the installation of central air conditioning — even if it takes longer than deploying portable air conditioners — is the most efficient way to use the money.

"For us to get into any fray between funding sources in unwise," said school board member Edward J. Gilliss. The board did not say whether the money would have to be used for central air or portable units.

Some board members attempted to slow the rollout of technology in schools next school year, but their efforts failed for lack of votes. The district is in the second year of a multi-year program to provide every child in the public schools with a laptop.

Causey and board member Ann Miller argued that the school system should not sign another four-year agreement to lease computers when the rollout is still considered an experiment and has not been proved to increase academic achievement.

Some members said they don't believe the high school curriculum that incorporates the laptops would be ready by next fall. Three high schools are scheduled to get laptops for all four grades.

The board also voted to add another support staff member who would report directly to the school board rather than the superintendent to research school matters. The board currently has only one staff member.

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