Kamenetz says state needs to help accelerate school air conditioning

The Baltimore Sun
Kamenetz touts plan for school A/C – which depends on state funding.

The war of words between Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and state officials in Annapolis over a lack of air conditioning in dozens of county public schools escalated again Tuesday.

Kamenetz, a Democrat, announced an accelerated plan for renovating old schools and adding air conditioning — a plan he said would work only if the state agrees to speed up its contributions to school construction.

"If the state really wants to help us ... they need to take money in future years and advance it, or accelerate it, so that together we can all get the job done sooner," Kamenetz said.

That drew quick response from the administration of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, with spokesman Doug Mayer saying: "It's nearly impossible to respond substantively to budget proposals that are delivered to the press before they are delivered to the Governor's Office.

"We look forward to reviewing the specifics on how Baltimore County plans to solve its longstanding school air conditioning issues," Mayer said.

Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot have been sniping at Kamenetz since the beginning of the school year, when parents and teachers in Baltimore County complained about the lack of air conditioning and overheated classrooms. The system shortened three school days and canceled some after-school activities because of excessive heat.

At a Board of Public Works meeting last month, Hogan and Franchot blasted Baltimore County for still having 48 schools that lack air conditioning. They called on Kamenetz to attend a Board of Public Works meeting to explain himself.

"Baltimore County doesn't need any more press conferences," Mayer said. "It needs solutions, which is exactly why the governor and comptroller invited the county executive to the Board of Public Works over three weeks ago."

The board — composed of the governor, comptroller and Treasurer Nancy Kopp — meets Wednesday, but Kamenetz won't be there. Instead, he's hosting a "Coffee with Kevin" community event at the Essex Senior Center.

Franchot and Kamenetz are considered potential Democratic candidates to challenge Hogan in the 2018 gubernatorial election.

At last month's board meeting, Hogan said it was "absolutely disgraceful and unacceptable" that about 30 percent of Baltimore County schools do not have air conditioning.

At a community meeting Franchot hosted on the air conditioning issue in Arbutus on Tuesday night, he said it's time to "end the excuses once and for all."

"It never has been a question of money," Franchot said to a crowd of more than 100. "It's about leadership. It's about priorities. It's about compassion and it's about common sense."

Kamenetz has defended the county's progress in renovating schools and adding air conditioning, and has repeatedly said that more state money would make the job easier.

He offered specifics for the first time Tuesday, saying if the state could pony up $175 million over the next three years, the county could get all of its schools renovated with air conditioning by December 2019.

Kamenetz said he's not asking for more money than the county would be due, but rather asking for a faster distribution of the money from the state.

"What we are asking the state to do is advance funds that they might otherwise give us in out years, and we will then advance our funds and then we can get the job done sooner," Kamenetz said.

School construction projects are generally paid for with money from both the county and the state.

Kamenetz said the timing of his announcement had nothing to do with the criticism he's received or political considerations. He said the county's school board was scheduled to review and approve the revised construction schedule Tuesday night to meet a state deadline.

The school board voted Tuesday night to accept the accelerated schedule for air conditioned schools. Although a number of members said they appreciated the county executive's proposal, some were concerned that about $11 million in roofing repairs were taken off the request to the state for construction money. School officials said the county executive had agreed to add the money to his budget.

Board member Kathleen Causey asked if it was necessary for the board to vote [that night] on a proposal the board had been given just a few hours before. "I don't want to vote for this and find out it means something else in terms of the capital and operating budget," she said.

When she was told it had to be voted on that night in order to prepare a detailed proposal to the state by the end of the month, she voted in favor of the motion. It passed unanimously.

Without accelerated funding from the state — which would be matched by accelerated funding from the county — it would take until 2021 to put air conditioning in 99 percent of county schools.

Baltimore City also has struggled with the issue; about half of city schools lack air conditioning. The state and the city agreed in 2013 to a seven-year, $1 billion plan to build and renovate schools.

Kamenetz said that the state has "stepped up to the plate" for the city and should do the same for the county.

State Sen. Delores Kelley, who was one of about a dozen mostly Democratic lawmakers who joined Kamenetz at his news conference, said it's "very realistic" that Baltimore County could succeed in getting the accelerated funding from the state.

Franchot was less optimistic, predicting at the Arbutus community meeting that Kamenetz's request will be "dead on arrival" in Annapolis.

Kamenetz said he plans to talk to the governor about his plan but has "no specific date" to meet with Hogan.

He also acknowledged that accelerated funding now could mean years of no state funding later.

"We're not OK with it, because obviously we're going to have future needs," he said. "But we really think that this is such a comprehensive program, we think we'll be ahead of the curve."

Baltimore Sun reporters Liz Bowie and Erin Cox contributed to this article.

pwood@baltsun.com

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