Some city schools parents were informed yesterday that their kid's schools will close early if the heat index is above 100 degrees. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
We’re open to Gov. Larry Hogan’s calls for more independent oversight and accountability of Maryland’s schools. From the grade-fixing scandal in Prince George’s County to the improprieties that led to former Baltimore County superintendent Dallas Dance’s recent stint in jail, there’s plenty of reason to believe that our current system in which appointed or elected school boards provide supervision for the superintendents they hire (and on whom they are largely dependent for information about what’s going on) is inadequate. Governor Hogan is suggesting a state inspector general for education with the ability to hold hearings and issue subpoenas. If it could be structured in such a way as to be independent of politics, that could be helpful.
But where we part ways with the governor is in his effort Tuesday to conflate the actual malfeasance he describes with the forced closure or early dismissal of dozens of schools in Baltimore city and county due to the extreme heat and lack of adequate air conditioning. They are simply not related.
In tweets and public comments Tuesday, Mr. Hogan called attention to his campaign in recent years, along with sidekick Comptroller Peter Franchot, to pressure city and county officials to speed up the pace of air conditioning installation, and he blamed mismanagement by officials in those jurisdictions for the fact that some schools still lack it. (Apparently their other pet project, pushing the start of the school year past Labor Day, has not solved the hot classroom problem.) Governor Hogan says he’s been talking about this issue for four years and has provided record funds for school construction in that time while simultaneously changing the rules so that districts could use state money to install window AC units. So what’s the holdup?
First, window AC is not a good solution in most cases. The longstanding prohibition on the use of state school construction and renovation funds to install it was based on the sound reasoning that it was not a long-term capital investment. (Such units wear out much faster than central AC systems.) Window AC is less energy efficient, and given the age of the school buildings in question, installing window units would require electrical system upgrades that radically diminish if not eliminate their supposed advantages in expense and speed of installation. If local leaders had been installing window AC, Mr. Hogan would have had a good case to cry mismanagement.
Second, city and county school leaders have not ignored the complaints by parents and students about heat in classrooms. Under the late county executive Kevin Kamenetz, Baltimore County massively accelerated its program to install AC in schools. It may not have hit an initial goal of having air conditioning in all elementary and middle schools by the fall of 2017, but it’s pretty darn close. Only two schools in the county aren’t on track to be air conditioned within the next few years, and in both cases (Dulaney and Lansdowne high schools) that’s because of a debate about whether the buildings should be renovated or replaced entirely, with many parents arguing for the latter.
The city is not as far along in plans for installing air conditioning, but it also isn’t in a position to forward-fund the upgrades, as Baltimore County has been able to do. Despite some increases in local support, it remains heavily reliant on the state school construction and renovation funding process. Not only does it have a wide variety of other needs — last winter’s problems with heating are almost certainly a higher priority to address, for example — but it has often had to wait for the state to dole out full funding for a given project over a number of years. In the past, that has sometimes meant the city has been forced to return funds to the state because it was unable to meet deadlines to start the projects, a problem that was addressed by the General Assembly in the wake of last year’s heat problems.
Mr. Hogan’s opponent, Democrat Ben Jealous, is seeking to turn the issue against him, appearing Tuesday in Baltimore and today in Prince George’s County, where heat is also forcing early closures despite the presence of air conditioning systems in all schools. He argues that Mr. Hogan is underfunding schools and points to legislation Mr. Hogan vetoed that would have set a goal of at least $400 million in annual school funding (though the veto was related to a larger dispute about school construction management, not the amount of spending).
More intriguing, though, is an idea he has floated that’s connected to his venture capital work with a company that arranges financing for inner city energy efficiency projects, with upfront installation costs repaid through utility bill savings. Whoever wins this governor’s race, pursuing a large-scale public-private partnership to upgrade and green HVAC systems in schools in Baltimore and beyond would be a lot more help to future generations of students than finger-pointing about window AC.