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Board of Public Works OKs use of state money for portable air conditioners

School districts are closer to being allowed to use state money for portable air conditioners, a change in policy intended to spur installation of such units in hot schools in Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

The Board of Public Works — which is comprised of the governor, comptroller and treasurer and oversees state spending — voted unanimously to make the change at its meeting Wednesday morning.

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Comptroller Peter Franchot, who has pushed for portable air conditioning, championed the change in policy as a victory for parents, teachers and students who have been fighting to get classrooms cooled.

He compared their tenacity to people in Flint, Mich., who had long complained about bad drinking water only to find that their water is contaminated with lead.

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"This is our Flint," Franchot said.

Franchot said education activists have been similarly tenacious, despite being rebuffed by county and school officials. "We were all dismissed as a bunch of malcontents," he said.

"Those who are in the resistance will no longer be able to use state policy as an excuse for their own obstructionism," said Franchot, a Democrat. "And I would respectfully suggest that those who fail to take advantage of this opportunity to protect the health and safety of their constituents ... they continue their obstructionism at their own peril."

Gov. Larry Hogan said the change will "provide a tool" to help children.

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"Twenty-two of the jurisdictions in the state have solved the problem of air conditioning. Two have not: Baltimore City and Baltimore County, and that is unacceptable," said Hogan, a Republican.

The ruling of the Board of Public Works is not final. The General Assembly's Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review has the option to review and vote on the policy change. Sen. Roger Manno, co-chairman of that committee, has said his group "will take a very long and thorough look at it."

The policy change had the support of several Baltimore County Council members and state lawmakers from both parties who testified before the Board of Public Works — including Councilman Wade Kach, a former teacher who said that students start school earlier in August each year and end later in June.

"I don't care how good the kids are, they can't learn after awhile," he said.

But the new policy on portable air conditioners does not have the support of Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat who largely controls how that county's money is spent.

Kamenetz's spokeswoman, Ellen Kobler, issued a statement saying the vote was disappointing and noting that the policy still needs to be reviewed by state lawmakers.

"I am confident that legislators and the public will see this action for what it is: pure political theater," Kobler wrote.

Kobler said the county will press forward with plans to eventually install central air conditioning in all schools. "By the time the electrical upgrades would be engineered and window air conditioners installed, we will have completed the job with a permanent solution," Kobler said.

The governor and comptroller, however, made it clear that they don't want to wait.

Less than an hour after voting on the new air conditioning policy, Hogan and Franchot grilled school officials from Baltimore City and Baltimore County on when they would start installing portable units to the dozens of schools that lack air conditioning.

Hogan and Franchot indicated they expect both school districts to move quickly on installing portable units. Baltimore County has 48 school buildings without air conditioning; Baltimore City has 76 schools that lack air conditioning.

Baltimore schools CEO Gregory Thornton said his staff is working on a report evaluating the options for installing portable air conditioners. He estimates the cost would be about $17 million.

Thornton said he was encouraged by the policy change on portable air conditioning and said it could be an option, especially as the school system considers adding more summer programs or year-round options.

The city school system prefers central air conditioning, though, as it is more efficient and lasts longer, said J. Keith Scroggins, the school system's chief operating officer. However, the school system will consider portable air conditioning if it can speed up the process of cooling off classrooms, Scroggins said.

Franchot replied that he intends to ask city schools officials for progress updates on adding air conditioning at every biweekly meeting of the Board of Public Works.

"You need to put box air conditioning units in these classrooms. If you don't do it, it's a dereliction of duty," he said.

Baltimore County superintendent Dallas Dance estimates the cost for installing portable air conditioning units in schools in his county at $8 million to $10 million — money that would have to be taken away from other construction projects, unless the state or county provides more money to the school district. The county's current construction plans would put central air conditioning in all schools by 2021.

"Kids sitting in hot classrooms until 2021 is not acceptable," Hogan said, adding later: "You've got to come back with a new plan."

Dance and Thornton appeared before the Board of Public Works along with other school district leaders to ask for more money for school construction projects. Each school system was given 10 minutes to make their case for more money, an annual exercise that has been dubbed the "beg-a-thon."

Treasurer Nancy Kopp, a Democrat, expressed concern that the Board of Public Works was going down a "slippery slope" of injecting politics into school construction decisions that should be made in a nonpartisan manner. She said she voted for the change in policy to give school systems the option of installing portable air conditioning units — not to require them to do so.

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