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Hot rhetoric over county schools

We certainly would not have wanted to be among the students or teachers who suffered through the post-Labor Day heat wave this year in one of Baltimore County's 48 un-air conditioned schools. And we certainly have sympathy for all the parents who had to figure out ways to pick up their kids when schools closed early for the sweltering temperatures. The lack of air conditioning is not just an inconvenience but, on at least a handful of days a year, a real impediment to learning.

That said, it was nothing short of bizarre to hear Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot decry the county's record on A.C. as "absolutely disgraceful and unacceptable," in the governor's words, or proof, in the comptroller's, that county officials are "completely disinterested in dealing with this problem." The pair want to summon County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and Superintendent Dallas Dance to Annapolis to force them to explain why four dozen schools still lack air conditioning despite the $27 million the state has poured into school construction funds in Baltimore County during the last six years. Later in the day, Governor Hogan actually went so far as to threaten, "If we have to cut off funding, if we have to play hardball, we're going to make sure that Baltimore County takes the steps necessary to make sure these kids can learn in an environment where they're not sweating to death."

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Here are the facts. Five years ago, 52 percent of Baltimore County schools lacked air conditioning. Now that number is down to about 20 percent. Funding is in place this budget year to drop it to 15 percent. Within 10 years, the county plans to have air conditioned or put funding in place to air condition all but 1 percent of its schools. The county definitely was "disinterested in dealing with this problem" back in 2009 when, under a previous administration, it famously renovated Ridgely Middle School with no air conditioning and windows that could barely open. But Mr. Kamenetz, who made hay out of that debacle in his first run for executive, has actually done something about it.

We'll grant that if you're one of the kids or teachers still stuck in sauna-like conditions, that progress doesn't seem nearly fast enough. But it's also important to consider air conditioning in the broader context of the county's school facility needs. The system has the second-oldest building stock in the state, behind Baltimore City, and that creates many problems that are arguably more fundamental than the lack of A.C. Dulaney High School, for example, is not only sweltering on hot days but has severe plumbing problems — including pipes that burst and discolored water. The school system commissioned an assessment of its 173 buildings last year and found that 14 of them are seriously deficient. The worst, Colgate Elementary, lacks air conditioning but also has asbestos, faulty plumbing and wiring, no sprinkler system and poor lighting. Even many schools that are in better shape lack the capacity to support modern learning tools.

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Meanwhile, enrollment in county schools is growing, meaning that the system is simultaneously trying to modernize existing facilities and build new ones. Last year, elementary school enrollment exceeded capacity by 2,900 students, forcing the system to employ temporary classrooms in trailers, among other tactics, all year long, not just during the few hot weeks in the spring and fall.

Once upon a time, that sort of thing that prompted Mr. Franchot to stick his nose in Baltimore County schools' business. Back in 2008, he toured Rodgers Forge elementary, which was then 50 percent over capacity, and proclaimed the situation "one of the worst I've seen in the state." At the time, many thought then-Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. might challenge Mr. Franchot in the 2010 primary. Now, many think Mr. Kamenetz might challenge Mr. Hogan in 2018. Coincidence?

Whatever their motivations, the two are myopically jumping on a hot issue (so to speak) and ignoring the broader and very real problems of Baltimore County's school building stock. Mr. Kamenetz, to his credit, has tried to do something about the problem. He's built 11 additions and seven new schools in five years, and last year he re-arranged the county's capital borrowing program to devote more money to school construction. All told, he plans to devote $1.3 billion to the cause over the next decade for a program that would leave the system with a 6,000-seat surplus in its elementary schools. Less than a third of the money is expected to come from the state, which typically matches county funds dollar-for-dollar.

Even that isn't enough, but that's more a reflection of the scope of the issue than Mr. Kamenetz's commitment to it. Ultimately, providing modern schools for all the system's students will likely take more than Baltimore County can provide with existing funds, and that's a conversation that is long overdue in Towson. If Governor Hogan and Comptroller Franchot would like to offer more help from the state, that would be more than welcome. But let's not pretend that the most pressing problem is finding out why Baltimore County hasn't devoted every dime of school construction funding from Annapolis to solving an issue that is only important a few weeks a year.

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