The obsession with window air conditioning in Baltimore county and city public schools by Comptroller Peter Franchot, joined of late by Gov. Larry Hogan, is no longer amusing. On Wednesday, their heavy-handed tactics to force local officials to immediately install window units in some 4,000 classrooms went beyond political grandstanding into the realm of doing real damage to students and to a system of making hard choices on how to allocate limited funds that has long served the state well. The governor and comptroller decided to hold back $10 million to renovate county schools and $5 million for city schools unless city and county officials do something that is probably impossible, possibly illegal and certainly fiscally wasteful. In the process, they disrespected the Baltimore County superintendent, smeared the integrity of the attorney general and his staff, bullied the treasurer and prompted the man who has guided the state's school construction program for 13 years to resign. It was ugly, unbecoming and ultimately unproductive.

The damage

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The governor and comptroller (who, it should be noted, acted over the well articulated objections of Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp) voted to withhold the money unless the city and county install window units in every un-air conditioned classroom by the start of the new school year in August. They did not specify which projects should not be funded, but here's a sampling of what those two districts have in their capital programs in the coming fiscal year that could be affected by their decision:

The replacement of Lansdowne and Relay elementary schools in the county and Holabird and Graceland Park/O'Donnell Heights elementaries in the city; roof repair or replacement at Hampstead Hill Academy, Brehms Lane Elementary, Lakewood Early Learning Center, Benjamin Franklin High School, Edmondson High, City College, and Booker T. Washington Middle School in the city; HVAC work at The Historic Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary, Dallas F. Nicholas Elementary and Harlem Park Elementary in the city; and the installation of air conditioning in Baltimore Highlands, Chapel Hill, Bear Creek, Pot Spring and Grange elementaries and Franklin Middle School in the county.

Yes, that's right, Messrs. Hogan and Franchot withheld money for air conditioning to force Baltimore County to install air conditioning.

We don't dispute the testimony of the students and parents who spoke in support of the Hogan-Franchot motion Wednesday. We have no doubt that many classrooms are profoundly uncomfortable in hot weather, that the lack of air conditioning impedes learning and that in some cases students, particularly those with asthma, may become ill as a result of the heat and humidity. But we would like to add a few pertinent facts.

Work in progress

First, had Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance not been blocked from speaking at Wednesday's meeting, he might have pointed out that the county has in fact heard parents' and students' complaints and embarked on a massive program of installing central air in its school buildings. Thanks to additional funding from the county, it expects to complete the process within three years. Baltimore City has also begun to address the air conditioning issue, though not quite as rapidly, owing to the much more significant facilities needs that prompted the current $1.1 billion effort to replace and repair dozens of schools. Seven city schools had to close at one point or another this winter because they lacked heat, which we suspect students and parents would agree should be a higher priority to address than the lack of AC.

Logistical questions

Second, what Messrs. Hogan and Franchot are demanding isn't as simple as buying a few units at Home Depot and popping them into the window. Critics question whether Baltimore County can really complete all its AC upgrades on schedule, but there is also ample reason to question how long the Hogan/Franchot plan will take.

There are, first of all, procurement laws to follow to ensure the taxpayers are getting a good deal (not that such considerations seem in play here to begin with), and that takes time. The county school system estimates that based on the timelines of the various steps needed to comply with state law, it would not be able to execute contracts for the work until February of 2017.

But even if the city and county could get their hands on enough units for 4,000 classrooms immediately, they would need to install them in approximately 36 rooms a day (including the remaining school days, Saturdays, Sundays, Memorial Day and the 4th of July) to meet the deadline. Most of the schools in question don't have the electrical capacity to handle window AC in every classroom, so doing that many that fast would be a tall order. Mr. Franchot said Anne Arundel County installed window units in some schools by running power lines directly to the outside of each room, so perhaps that will be an option if Baltimore Gas & Electric has nothing else planned for the next three months.

Legal questions

Third, there is the legal question about whether state construction money can be spent on window air conditioning. The Inter-Agency Committee on School Construction (the body that had for decades made decisions about what projects should get state funding before Messrs. Hogan and Franchot decided to insert themselves in the process) has had a policy against it on the grounds that the state's limited funds should be reserved for long-term investments, not things that wear out. Messrs. Hogan and Franchot pressured the IAC, as it is known, to change the policy, but to date it has not done so. In January, the Board of Public Works voted to change the Code of Maryland Regulations to specifically authorize that use. Per state law, the proposed regulation went through a public comment period, and during that time, the General Assembly inserted language in the fiscal 2017 budget prohibiting school construction funds from being used for any purpose not authorized as of Jan. 1, 2016, and the legislature's committee that reviews new regulations put this one on hold.

Messrs. Franchot and Hogan point to an opinion by the board's counsel asserting that the legislature's action does not actually prevent the use of state money on window AC. Attorney General Brian E. Frosh's office issued an opinion that came to the opposite conclusion. During Wednesday's meeting, Mr. Franchot accused Attorney General Frosh of concocting an erroneous opinion at the behest of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch. When the assistant attorney general in attendance Wednesday sought to defend the integrity of her boss and her office, Mr. Hogan cut her off.

In addition to that question is whether the board's action Wednesday to finalize the window AC regulation was proper given the hold placed by the Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee (known as AELR). The board's counsel opined that Messrs. Hogan and Franchot need not wait to formally approve the regulation so long as they set its effective date after the expiration of the AELR hold. Ms. Kopp said she would like to hear the opinion of the attorney general's office. Mr. Hogan responded: "You can ask what you want, but we're taking the vote today." The actual advice from the attorney general's office was that the board's plan was not in accordance with the law and as a result the regulation would have no effect.

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Fiscal questions

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Which brings us to the fourth point: that whether legal or not, this use of state funds is fiscally unwise. Ms. Kopp made two important observations on that score. First, given the uncertainty about the legality of the board's action, no bond counsel would be able to write an unqualified letter endorsing the issuance of state debt for that purpose which would make the bonds hard for the state to market. And second, Maryland bonds have a term of 15 years. It is bad fiscal practice, she said, "to be paying 15 years for something that only lasts five or six." That's why we take out 30-year mortgages on houses, not cars.

On top of that, within a few years, much if not most of the effort and expense of installing window air immediately will be wasted. Baltimore County already has funding in place to upgrade every remaining school to central air by the end of fiscal 2019. And because of the city's 21st Century Schools plan, many of the buildings in question are slated for replacement or comprehensive renovation.

'Astonishing'

Finally, the resignation of IAC Executive Director David Lever should not go without note. The IAC is a body designed to be insulated from politics. Each of the presiding officers of the legislature gets to pick one member, and the governor has two in the form of the secretaries of planning and general services. The chair is the state superintendent of schools who answers to the state Board of Education. The IAC selects its executive director who is approved by the Board of Public Works. No one faction has control, and consequently, it has been remarkably stable. Mr. Lever has held the post for 13 years, dating to the early days of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s tenure. His predecessor had the job for 22 years.

In his resignation letter, Mr. Lever noted that the IAC has for many years observed a principle of deferring to local officials' priorities, but, he said, this week's Board of Public Works meeting called both that and the board's professional judgment into question. "It appears that the Board of Public Works now intends to use its authority over capital funding to compel school systems to meet its objectives, irrespective of whether these objectives align with local priorities and the recommendations of the IAC. It also appears that a majority of the Board of Public Works members have no interest in being informed on critical matters by local superintendents and other school officials, the individuals who have the responsibility to weigh the complex factors that intersect around school facilities and to determine the outcomes that best meet the needs of their students and their communities. The disrespect with which these dedicated, serious officials were treated at the meeting of May 11 is no less than astonishing," he wrote.

Astonishing is one word for it. Shameful, foolish, petulant, juvenile and cynical would be others. The parents of every child in Maryland public schools now need to ask, if Governor Hogan and Comptroller Franchot were willing to do this, what's next?

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