Baltimore City schools' deep freeze

With Baltimore City kids shivering under multiple layers of sweaters, coats and blankets as their schools’ heating systems fail to keep up with the cold, the obsession of Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot with air conditioning seems pretty ludicrous. Of course, back when sweltering conditions were forcing Baltimore County schools to repeatedly revise their policies for sending students home because of heat, it seemed more prescient. That’s the nature of weather in our region where temperatures sometimes hit the extremes in both directions.

We have always been among those who believed the Hogan/Franchot AC myopia was political opportunism rather than prudent management. Schools’ needs should be evaluated and prioritized by the leaders of individual districts, not dictated to them by the governor and comptroller. As for the relative merits of installing AC versus fixing boilers, although neither temperature extreme is conducive to learning, cold causes pipes to burst; heat doesn’t. That said, we do not believe the current problems that prompted the city teachers union to demand the entire system shut down today regardless of how much snow we get cannot really be laid at the feet of Messrs. Hogan and Franchot. The leadership failures that led us to this point are much bigger than that.

True, some maintenance projects that would help keep kids warm in the winter may have been casualties of the district’s effort to prioritize AC per the governor’s demands. A badly needed boiler replacement at City College, for example, didn’t get funded, and that school has predictably emerged as one of the chief trouble spots. On the other hand, there’s plenty of room to question how well the district has managed its maintenance and capital projects over the years; that’s why the state insisted that the Maryland Stadium Authority manage the district’s 21st Century Schools building program. In a couple of cases, the system has actually returned money to the state that was earmarked for HVAC projects. But those are marginal parts of a story in which as many as 60 schools have experienced problems as a result of the cold, with more continuing to emerge as the extreme cold stretches on.

None of this should come as a surprise. Five years ago, the city schools commissioned a comprehensive assessment of their facilities, which are on average the oldest in the state. Along with myriad deficiencies in their facilities’ suitability to deliver a 21st century education, the consultants found a massive backlog in deferred maintenance to roofs, windows, plumbing, electrical systems and, yes, heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

In that last category alone, the consultants identified about $680 million worth of deficiencies, the vast majority of which were considered a crisis then or likely to become one within five years, which is to say, by now. The anticipated tab for plumbing problems, which have also been exacerbated by the recent cold, added another $86 million. In all, the system needed to invest $1.4 billion in fixing basic structural problems before it added a single science lab.

Governor Hogan reacted to criticism of his role in ensuring safe facilities for city schoolkids by pointing both to his general spending on school construction and to the $20 million a year he has provided to the city’s 21st Century Schools program that was devised to address the facilities deficiencies outlined in the 2012 report. (The deal by which the state, city and school system split the costs predated Mr. Hogan’s arrival in Annapolis, but he has continued to put money for it in the budget.)

But here’s the thing: The 21st Century Schools initiative, massive though it may be, isn’t nearly enough. At $1 billion, it wouldn’t even cover the cost of fixing the structural deficits that were in place in 2012, much less those that were expected to develop in the years ahead or the expense of upgrading the facilities to modern educational standards.

Two schools rebuilt under the program have opened this year, and another seven are under construction. Nineteen more are in the pipeline, either in the design phase or subject to a feasibility study. Ultimately, officials expect the 21st Century Schools funding will allow the district to rebuild, renovate or replace between 23 and 28 schools. That’s in a district with 183 permanent buildings on 163 campuses, 49 of which the consultants concluded needed to be replaced or scrapped. The condition of another 75 was rated as “very poor.”

As substantial an achievement as the 21st Century Schools program is, the advocates who spent years developing the plan and building support for it considered it to be about half of the solution to the problem. Few if any political leaders in City Hall or Annapolis have since shown any appetite for considering ways to address the other half.

Governor Hogan shouldn’t be able to get away with bragging about the millions he’s provided to city schools without acknowledging that it still isn’t nearly enough. And his political opponents shouldn’t be allowed to criticize him for that without discussing how they would propose to come up with the billion-plus dollars it would take to really solve the problem. We don’t claim there are easy solutions, but our leaders do us no favors by pretending otherwise.

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