Baltimore school officials have asked the Board of Public Works to reconsider what they called a "punitive and unreasonable" decision to withhold $5 million in school construction money if the system doesn't install window air-conditioning units in 2,000 classrooms by August.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch backed the school system, accusing the board majority — Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot — of intruding on the powers of the General Assembly. He said lawmakers could review the board's role during next year's legislative session.
In a letter dated Monday, acting school system Chief Executive Officer Tammy L. Turner said the position the board took last week was surprising because the city had submitted a "good faith plan" spelling out its intention to install air conditioning throughout its schools.
Because of the board's action, she said, the system will be "forced to choose between much-needed fire safety, roofs, boilers, and window projects that are essential to the safety and security of our students, and the BPW's unprecedented mandate to install portable air-conditioning units within an unreasonable time frame."
Peter Hamm, a spokesman for Franchot, dismissed the letter.
"For five years, the comptroller has been asking the education bureaucracy in Baltimore City to step up and do the right thing by thousands of children who are sitting in unsafe and unhealthy classrooms. And all we've ever received have been promises followed by excuses," Hamm said.
The three-member board voted 2-1 last week to withhold $5 million from Baltimore and $10 million from Baltimore County in an effort to force the two school systems to install portable air conditioning in classrooms that aren't currently cooled. The board set the start of the school year as its deadline.
The systems, which include some of the oldest school buildings in the state, contend they have plans to install central air conditioning over the next few years. But Hogan and Franchot said it is imperative to add air conditioning now.
The dispute came to a head last week during a contentious board meeting, at which Hogan, a Republican, and Franchot, a Democrat, castigated school officials from the two jurisdictions for not installing air conditioning more quickly.
Over the protests of Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, the governor and comptroller voted to "fence off" the money so that the city and county could not use it for other construction work.
Kopp, a Democrat, called the move "political theater" and said it was probably illegal for the board to force its priorities on local school systems.
The board's action prompted David Lever, the longtime executive director of the Interagency Committee on School Construction, or IAC, to submit his resignation in protest.
The committee, an independent agency that recommends which school construction projects should be funded, has long followed a policy that makes portable air conditioners — as opposed to central air — ineligible for state funding. Hogan and Franchot have sought to overturn that policy, while the General Assembly wrote it into law in this year's capital budget.
In its letter, Baltimore schools said the cost of installing window air conditioners in 2,000 classrooms would come to $27 million. "The district does not have additional resources to fund such an aggressive program," Turner wrote.
Hogan spokesman Matthew A. Clark called the letter "alarming," adding that the city schools had previously told the state that only about 400 classrooms lacked air conditioning, with a cost of $4 million to install them.
"It's obvious that more attention must to be paid to the matter given the scale of the problem," he said.
Busch, an Arundel County Democrat, said in an interview Tuesday that the legislature is likely to address the board's powers when it convenes in January.
"I think there'll be some extensive study on defining the roles of the IAC and the Board of Public Works," he said.
Busch said the board's role is to review and approve state contracts, not to make policy. He said the board's action sets a "bad precedent" that could allow it to withhold money from school districts any time it disagrees with them on policy, including curriculum.
Hamm, speaking for Franchot, brushed off Busch's criticism.
"The speaker is a very, very important man. He has a lot of important matters to work on. Tell him we've got this one covered," Hamm said.