Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot plan to summon Baltimore County leaders to Annapolis to explain why so many school children are still sweltering in classrooms with no air conditioning.
The governor called the situation “absolutely disgraceful and unacceptable,” saying “there's no excuse” for the county’s still not having installed air conditioning in more than four dozen schools.
During Wednesday's meeting of the state Board of Public Works, Franchot and Hogan said Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance need to be called to account.
“Clearly, it's not a question of resources,” Franchot said, pointing out the county collected $27 million in state funds for school improvements over the past six years. “It's a question of leadership, management and priorities. ... They seem completely disinterested in dealing with this problem.”
Kamenetz responded by calling a news conference in Towson to defend his efforts to build and renovate schools — including plans to have central air conditioning in 99 percent of the county’s public schools by 2021.
“Anyone can offer opinions, but the facts speak for themselves,” Kamenetz said. “What we are accomplishing is an historic commitment to renovate our schools, modernize them, add public safety components as well as air conditioning.”
The demand for a public explanation of why so many classrooms still lack cooling follows years of complaints from teachers and students. Already in this new school year, the Baltimore County school system has three times shortened the school day or canceled after-school activities to keep students out of the heat.
While the school system during Kamenetz’s tenure has steadily installed air conditioning, 48 schools in the district — about 30 percent — still lack it, school officials say. Franchot and Hogan say window units should have been purchased by now.
“We need something done yesterday on this issue because kids are coming home with headaches, wringing their socks out because they're covered in sweat,” Franchot said in an interview.
“Baltimore County has the money, they've just chosen to be indifferent to the suffering of their kids.”
Hogan agreed, saying that the state has spent record amounts on schools. He said Dance and Kamenetz should be called to explain the situation at the board’s next meeting Oct. 7.
Kamenetz refused to say whether he would attend. “I haven’t received such an invitation,” he said. “I certainly would invite Governor Hogan to come to my office in Baltimore County and we can have that first opportunity to have a very frank conversation of our needs in Baltimore County.”
The intervention by Hogan and Franchot adds a political dimension to the long-simmering fight about air conditioning in Baltimore County schools. Kamenetz is widely viewed as a potential candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018, as is Franchot.
Hogan, a Republican, could be up for re-election then in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by roughly 3 to 1. His 2014 upset victory was due in part to the votes of Democrats in Baltimore County.
“Baltimore County is crucial for anyone who wants to win a statewide election,” said Todd Eberly, professor of political science at St. Mary’s College. Air conditioning has become a hot-button issue for many parents scrambling when schools close unexpectedly for heat and for taxpayers footing the bill for antiquated buildings.
“If you're an elected official, whether from local government or statewide, of course you're going to want to look like you're on the right side of this issue,” Eberly said, adding that the stakes are higher for Hogan, whom Democrats have criticized for withholding some school funds.
“You've got to turn the narrative around from ‘I'm not giving them enough money’ to ‘They've got more than enough money,’” Eberly said.
Some parents found the political implications frustrating.
“Looking for a source of blame is counterproductive,” said Yara Cheikh, a parent of four county public school students who has worked on the air conditioning issue for years. She wants the district ultimately to put central air into all schools. “We need to focus. We need to find the funding and the solutions together,” she said.
Others hoped that county officials might be motivated by the pressure from two top state office holders.
“If Peter Franchot is a Democrat and Larry Hogan is a Republican, I don't care. If they want to call the superintendent and the county executive down to Annapolis to explain how they spent all this money, awesome, because I'd like to know that too,” said parent Lily Rowe.
Rowe said she has been skeptical when school officials say the electrical systems in many schools are too outdated to support the electrical load from window units in every classroom. But maybe, she said, someone like Franchot or Hogan could ask for proof or push local officials to act.
“It’s not like parents can wander into a school and examine the electrical panels themselves,” Rowe said. “If the county decides not to [install window units], who is in a position to force them? Not parents.”
Baltimore City schools have an even greater share of schools without air conditioning. Franchot acknowledged that, but said the city has financial troubles and moreover has embarked on a $1 billion program to rebuild more than two dozen schools.
Franchot, meanwhile, has planned a public town hall about the issue for Oct. 6. On Wednesday, he promised parents, teachers and students that the lack of air conditioning in Baltimore County would be addressed. “It will change, whether we have to do it the easy way or the hard way,” he said.
Kamenetz maintains that he’s made significant progress in reducing the number of schools without air conditioning through the county’s $1.3 billion “Schools for the Future” construction program. He said he could make even more progress if the state kicked in more money toward school construction. Baltimore County is putting about $900 million into the construction program, with the rest coming from the state.
“The state can help us achieve the job even faster if they match us dollar for dollar,” Kamenetz said. “I humbly ask Governor Hogan and Comptroller Franchot to please get us more state dollars.”
School construction is usually a 50-50 split between the county and state but Baltimore County has been putting in more, Kamenetz said.
Kamenetz also dismissed the suggestion from Franchot and many parents that portable air conditioning units for windows could be a cheaper solution to overheated schools. He said in old schools, it makes sense to install central air conditioning as part of a major construction project rather than portable units, which he called a “Band Aid” approach.
Dance agreed. “A short-term fix doesn’t do anything for us,” he said Wednesday.
As for students who are in hot classrooms in the meantime, Dance said he and the school board are reviewing the policies for closing schools in the event of hot weather with the goal of having a new policy in place by springtime.
Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford attended an event on Tuesday at Dulaney High School, where aides said he was inundated with stories about the heat conditions.