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Air conditioning as a civil right?

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot visited Cranberry Station Elementary School Sept. 12, 2016.
Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot visited Cranberry Station Elementary School Sept. 12, 2016. (Submitted image)

The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division has for nearly 60 years fought against discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, disability, religion, familial status and national origin. It has not, at least to date, sought to end discrimination based on room temperature. While standing up for those who lack the creature comforts many of us take for granted can be a noble cause, it simply isn't an issue of civil rights.

Yet that hasn't stopped Comptroller Peter Franchot from submitting a letter (co-signed by the president of the Maryland chapter of the NAACP) to the agency seeking an investigation into the lack of air conditioning in certain Baltimore City and Baltimore County schools on behalf of low-income families as a "blatant neglect of their civil rights."

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Laughable and a thorough misunderstanding of the federal Civil Rights Act? Yes. A waste of time? Absolutely. Yet somehow we are not surprised. Mr. Franchot long ago took valid concern about air conditioning in schools and stretched it beyond the bounds of reason. Sure, why not add civil rights to the list of climate control-related fixations and equate this perceived injustice of sultry classrooms with such historic events investigated by the Department of Justice as the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi or the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Medgar Evers?

But that's just the tip of this particular iceberg of lunacy. An analysis of the 37 Baltimore County Public Schools that lack air conditioning reveals that in terms of an actual area of discrimination NAACP chapters are normally most concerned about — discrimination based on race — the system must be found not guilty. Among the schools lacking AC, African-American students represent 30 percent of the enrollment in elementary schools, 39 percent in the middle schools and 42 percent in the high schools — or roughly the same as the school system's overall African-American enrollment of 39 percent.

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That's actually a pretty remarkable example of racial equity. Indeed, some of the schools that either lack air conditioning or are not fully air conditioned are overwhelmingly white such as Kingsville Elementary (91 percent white), Dumbarton Middle School (69 percent) and Patapsco High (67 percent). It's certainly true that the schools lacking air conditioning are also more likely to have students who qualify for free or reduced meals (the overall FARM rate runs 55-to-63 percent among the three classifications of non-AC schools while the systemwide FARM rate is 46.8 percent), but even that difference is relatively modest.

As for Baltimore City's public schools, there's actually a stronger case to be made that Maryland as a whole has failed to invest sufficiently in the aging and deteriorating educational infrastructure in its largest city. But sadly, such an accounting would surely include the $5 million withheld from the city school system earlier this year by the Board of Public Works on which Mr. Franchot holds the swing vote. The school construction money was held back from Baltimore to punish the schools' failure to install portable AC units — local officials having expressed an interest in spending such funds on more pressing concerns like fire safety, elevator repair, roof replacements and corroded pipes. Even now, in only six of the city's 163 school buildings is it considered safe to drink from water fountains.

Of course, the final silliness of this is that even if Justice Department took up the case, as unlikely as that might be, Mr. Franchot's preferred remedy — the purchase and installation of portable AC units — would surely be moot by the time the case was settled. City officials say they are already acting on the issue as swiftly as possible with the number of buildings lacking AC expected to decline from 76 to 66 next year (with a 5- to 6-year time frame for the remainder), and in Baltimore County, all but 13 schools are set to have permanent air conditioning by next year (and the rest no later than August of 2019).

In the meantime, the only real effect of this otherwise meaningless gesture by Mr. Franchot is to further antagonize Democratic leaders. The comptroller's vision of this issue has become so single-minded and oppositional that it's unlikely that he could get Democrats in the General Assembly to approve any legislation on any subject that carried even a hint of his involvement. Rarely has someone elected to statewide office been as widely reviled by officeholders of his own party. Mr. Franchot can wear that antagonism as a badge of honor in the manner of Sen. Ted Cruz, but when it comes to actually doing his job — correcting the problems in tax collection recently revealed by a legislative audit, for example — Mr. Franchot may find little sympathy or, more importantly, votes. And that's not just a setback for him, it could prove a big problem for shortchanged taxpayers, too.

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