Maryland's Interagency Committee on School Construction took a principled stand today when its members refused to become political tools of the governor and Comptroller Peter Franchot in their impossible demand that Baltimore city and county schools install window air conditioning in some 4,000 classrooms by the start of the school year in August.
Last week, Messrs. Hogan and Franchot used their seats on the Board of Public Works to withhold $10 million in school construction from the county and $5 million from the city unless they comply with a demand that is neither feasible nor fiscally wise. But they didn't specify which projects should lose funding, leaving that bit of dirty work up to the IAC, whose long-tenured and well respected executive director, David Lever, announced his resignation in protest of their actions. With today's vote, the IAC reaffirmed its recommendations for which projects in those districts should be funded and made clear that it would not be a party to the political brinkmanship the governor and comptroller are engaged in.
The members of the IAC include one representative each from the House of Delegates and state Senate; one from the Maryland State Department of Education; and Governor Hogan's secretaries of general services and planning. Planning Secretary David Craig was absent, and General Services Secretary C. Gail Bassette said later that she "would not sign off on a letter that goes against the governor's or the Board of Public Works' position." However, the two representatives of the legislature, former Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. and former Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, said the IAC took a voice vote on whether to send the letter, and no one voted against it or voiced any objection. When asked whether she voted no, Ms. Bassette did not answer.
If the governor and comptroller wish to persist in this effort to strong-arm two school districts into wasting tax dollars, they will have to do the deed themselves. They will have to vote on which projects to de-fund — do they want to eliminate the replacement of Relay Elementary or would they cut the new Lansdowne Elementary instead? Ax the fire safety upgrades at North Bend Elementary or the new roof at Edmondson High? Or are they actually going to cut the money designated to put central air in five elementaries and one middle school in Baltimore County?
We certainly hope it won't come to that. Although the governor and comptroller prevented those who might have pointed out the flaws in their demands from speaking at last week's Board of Public Works meeting, some pertinent details have surfaced in the intervening week.
In a letter asking the board to reconsider its action, interim Baltimore schools CEO Tammy L. Turner estimated that installing window AC in the 2,000 city classrooms that aren't air conditioned would cost $27 million, far more than the "less than $10 million" Mr. Franchot suggested for the cost of tackling all 4,000 classrooms in the city and county. Moreover, Ms. Turner pointed out that the city is in the process of building as many as 28 new schools, all of which will have central air, meaning that buying window units now will be a waste in a few years. "In addition," she wrote, "there are significant timeline concerns related to designs for electrical upgrades and sizing equipment for student capacity, addressing ventilation to meet code requirements, and the procurement process."
In an interview today with The Sun's editorial board, Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance reiterated that plans are underway to complete central air installation in all county schools that lack it by 2019. To those who have questioned his ability to meet that deadline, he notes that the county has in the last four years cut in half the number of schools that lack central air, and it has done so on time and under budget. "I am willing to guarantee you it will be done by 2019," he said.
Installing window units in all the un-air conditioned classrooms by the end of August is simply not possible, he said, because of procurement rules and other considerations. Abandoning the district's current plans in order to satisfy the governor and comptroller would not accelerate the time table for most of the remaining un-air conditioned schools but would delay the county's ability to achieve a permanent solution to the problem of hot classrooms. "We waste more money in the long term if we don't do a long-term solution now," Mr. Dance said.
Messrs. Hogan and Franchot have made their point. Actually, they made it long before last week's Board of Public Works spectacle. Both the city and county now have plans to air condition their classrooms, which they didn't before Mr. Franchot started raising the issue, and Baltimore County has allocated money in recent months to substantially accelerate its schedule. Rather than continuing down this rabbit hole, we hope the two will use the next board meeting to declare victory and move on.