In the wake of cold weather school closures in Baltimore (as well as bursting pipes) that drew national attention two winters ago, the Maryland General Assembly last year created the Healthy School Facility Fund, requiring Gov. Larry Hogan to appropriate $30 million annually this year and next. This month, the Maryland’s Interagency Commission on School Construction voted to award the single biggest chunk of this year’s grant, $13.4 million, not to city schools for working boilers but to Baltimore County for temporary air conditioning units in seven schools. Nearly lost in the hoopla is that the total cost for this project could be north of $25 million, assuming Baltimore County comes up with its matching share.
Yowza, that’s a lot of money for “vertical packaged HVAC units and installation," especially given that the law prohibits any one subdivision from receiving more than $15 million from the fund. And for temporary air conditioners? Let’s put that in context.
First, there’s no disputing that all schools, public and private, should strive to have comfortable temperatures in their classrooms in all seasons. When the thermostat falls outside the tolerable range, learning not only becomes more difficult, but, at least for some youngsters, it’s just not healthy. Most schools have this covered, but, as statewide surveys have documented, at least four systems don’t have every classroom air conditioned, and the worst offenders are Baltimore City and Baltimore County.
Yet school systems have found ways to cope and have done so for decades. In these typically older schools, hot classrooms sometimes mean they have to close or at least close early. On Sept. 12, Baltimore County experienced one such day, its first for the year. Last year, the schools with no air conditioning were closed a total of three days; the year before there were zero hot weather closing days. For the purposes of analyzing the wisdom of this expenditure, let’s assume there are five every year. But let’s also assume Baltimore County will continue down the road of replacing older schools like Berkshire and Colgate elementary schools with ones that have permanent AC in the near future, potentially making the IAC’s actions irrelevant. Ultimately, we’re really talking about spending $7.8 million and $8.715 million for temporary AC at Dulaney and Lansdowne high schools (when one includes the 44% county match). Those two schools are scheduled for replacement, too, but it might be as many as 10 years away.
So here’s the math: Two schools with a total student enrollment of about 3,300, five days each year for 10 years divided by $16.5 million. That works out to spending $330,000 per closure, or $100 per student per day (or $500 per year), and given the generosity of these parameters, it’s really much worse than that. And far more mortifying, given that even Baltimore County doesn’t list temporary air conditioning in its top school construction priorities; replacing its decrepit elementary schools tops the chart. For something less than $500, every overheated student could instead receive a backpack of ice with a portable fan and perhaps their own Vitamix blender to make smoothies.
So why is Annapolis so happily throwing money at temporary air conditioners? That’s easy. It’s been a top priority for Comptroller Peter Franchot in response to strong lobbying by certain county parents, some of whom now serve on the school board. Gov. Larry Hogan has backed him up, anxious as he is to have the comptroller’s support on the Board of Public Works. (Or maybe he’s just equally able to recognize a populist cause when he sees one.) Mr. Franchot, who is contemplating a run for governor, is lauded by these parents as a hero. Governor Hogan happily signs the checks to keep his political ally happy. Lawmakers are pleased to spend more money on education for whatever purposes (and, to be fair, the same fund is also helping replace dangerous lead pipes and and moldy insulation in city schools). Yet it’s the Maryland taxpayer who foots the bill for all this temporary AC bliss — even as the governor expresses strong reservations about spending more on Kirwan Commission school reforms that could actually make a difference in educational outcomes.
Sadly, the deal is done. Baltimore County was only too happy to play along and submit its application to get the free money they knew was coming their way. Mr. Franchot will now have plenty of grateful volunteers to staff his campaign offices in the county, and some lucky HVAC contractor is going to be laughing all the way to the bank. Congratulations to all. After the money is spent and the schools involved are replaced with entirely new buildings in the coming years, rendering the whole process moot, we look forward to the eventual legislative audit that will demonstrate what a boondoggle the whole thing turned out to be.