Every winter, thousands of Baltimore students shiver in cold classrooms. Every summer, they sweat in buildings without air conditioning. And sometimes, the district has to send students home because their schools lack heating and cooling.
To put an end to the perennial problem, City Council President Brandon Scott renewed his call Wednesday for the mayor to devote the city’s budget surplus to helping the school system finally outfit all its buildings with functional HVAC systems.
Based on updated figures from the district, Scott said the city should spend roughly $21 million of its projected $34 million budget surplus for HVAC renovations at nine buildings for which the school system hasn’t secured funding for the work.
“With just over half of the unaudited surplus, we can ensure every student goes to school in an environment that is more conducive to learning, thanks to reliable heating and air conditioning,” Scott wrote in a Wednesday letter to Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.
The question of what to do with the anticipated surplus has pitted the two men against each other again. Both are running for mayor in a crowded Democratic primary.
Young also wants the money going toward city schoolchildren. But instead of using the money for capital needs, he said it should be used to help fund an expensive statewide plan to improve education, known as Kirwan, for the commission that drew up the recommendations.
The plan, which still needs to go through the General Assembly, eventually would require $4 billion more to be spent each year on public schools statewide through a mix of additional state and local funding. Baltimore is faced with finding $330 million more, each year, by 2030 to help fund the improvements, which include increasing teacher salaries, improving career preparation programs and expanding free, full-day prekindergarten.
Young already has warned city agencies to plan for 5% cuts to their budgets by 2022 in anticipation of the impending financial stress.
The mayor “appreciates the council president’s suggestion,” spokesman James Bentley said Wednesday, “but any surplus money will go toward the city’s obligation to meet Kirwan.”
Last week, Young announced he would devote an additional $25 million to city schools next year as a “down payment on Kirwan.”
Scott said he agrees with the mayor that funding the education plan is the city’s top priority, but believes this isn’t an “either-or discussion." He doesn’t think the surplus should be used to fund ongoing expenses, rather it should be devoted toward knocking out a one-time project.
“We have to be prepared for Kirwan," he said, “but we also have to understand that this is a need we can tackle right now.”
The council will hold a hearing next week to get an update on the city’s financial preparation for Kirwan.
According to its most recent air-conditioning plan, the district operates 48 public schools that lack functional AC. Through a mix of local and state dollars — and a plan to close some schools — CEO Sonja Santelises said only nine of those schools remain “without a secured funding source.” Fixing those buildings’ HVAC systems would cost about $20.74 million, she wrote in a November letter to Scott.
“We greatly appreciate your consideration of the needs of our students,” she wrote.