School air conditioning: It’s not the heat, it’s the lack of humility | COMMENTARY

Second graders exit Johnston Square Elementary School at noon on Monday, Aug. 30 with early dismissal due to the heat and the lack of air conditioning in the building on the first day of school. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun).

After a pleasant flirtation with early fall weather last week, Maryland is back in the sauna with temperatures in the 90-degree range and humidity levels somewhere between damp and soaking wet. One of the unfortunate side effects of this meteorological malady is early dismissal from school in those buildings lacking fully functioning air conditioning systems.

Baltimore City Public Schools, long the regional leader in substandard school conditions, began that inevitable process Monday with 27 schools closing early for lack of AC or because of systems under repair. This is unfortunate for any number of reasons, perhaps the greatest being that disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic has already had a negative impact on education. Students are already behind, and now there’s yet another obstacle tossed in their path.


But that would also be the narrow and somewhat misleading view. One might also note that city schools have, in fact, never been better positioned to deal with a heat wave as they are today. Had the same weather struck just three years ago, at least 75 city schools would be sending kids home early. And the same might be said of some other jurisdictions, such as Baltimore County, where not every school is fully equipped with central air conditioning, but more than ever are today. There are any number of reasons for this circumstance, not the least of which is a plethora of older buildings. It’s always been a different story in more affluent and faster-growing suburbs, where the installation of air conditioning in new buildings is a given.

City school officials have long had some difficult choices to make: Spend money to replace aging structures or spend money to retrofit HVAC systems in buildings that deserve to be torn down and, by so doing, delay long-term replacements. Oh, and did we mention some buildings had other, more pressing physical needs like lead paint, unsafe drinking water and leaking roofs?


So, as moms and dads in Baltimore and elsewhere scramble to deal with early dismissals, it’s exceedingly unhelpful for politicians to take the usual pot shots. Gov. Larry Hogan described the lack of AC in some city schools (which caused early dismissal on the first day of classes) as “unbelievable” during a Board of Public Works meeting. Comptroller Peter Franchot then joined in the chorus calling the familiar circumstance “Groundhog Day.”

What was left unsaid is that Governor Hogan had previously expressed support for Baltimore’s air conditioning installation efforts, which are scheduled to bring every building into acceptable climate control by the 2022-2023 school year — assuming state funding remains available. So exactly how “unbelievable” was it? But then offering more thoughtful analysis doesn’t get you headlines the way populist bluster and outrage can.

The great blustering air conditioning debate of recent years has offered an instructive example of how politicians can, often deliberately, fail the cause of public education. Better preparing the next generation of students for the challenges ahead ought to be the focus of public policy. Air-conditioned classrooms is a worthy goal, but it ought to be secondary to improved educational outcome whether measured by test scores, attendance, graduation rates, college and technical school admission or job placement or whatever yardstick is appropriate. And if one school can improve those measures more by hiring teachers or paying for whatever other resources needed to better teach kids than by installing AC window units, why would we insist on the latter? That’s just foolish. School systems surely made mistakes in the past by not investing in AC decades ago, but why should we compound that now by neglecting student educations in the name of climate control?

Regrettably, air conditioning is not the only issue where the cause of education can be derailed by hot air. Just last week, Governor Hogan complained that the nine-member board set to oversee the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the school reform law passed by the Maryland General Assembly, lacked geographic balance, as if all 24 subdivisions could be represented in so small a group. This, too, seems more a distraction than a legitimate beef even as other politicians, the Prince George’s County executive included, joined the self-interest chorus.

That’s not to suggest school systems don’t deserve criticism or that appointed boards should not be diverse. All we ask is that we focus on the right things. Top of the list: providing a quality education to youngsters living in jurisdictions where concentrated poverty, racism and other social ills have made it an exceedingly difficult task, overheated classrooms included.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.