Gov. Larry Hogan extended his feud with the departing head of Maryland's public school construction program, refusing to act Wednesday on the agency's recommendations while blocking the longtime official from addressing the Board of Public Works.
Joined by Comptroller Peter Franchot, Hogan expressed lack of faith in the management abilities of David G. Lever, who leads the school construction agency. The two officials restated their opposition to significantly reducing the number of school maintenance inspections scheduled for the coming year, charging that Lever's plan to do so compromises children's safety and health.
Hogan blamed "poor management" for the agency's inability to keep up with its inspection reports — a swipe at Lever, who resigned in May to protest Hogan's and Franchot's decision to withhold money from Baltimore and Baltimore County unless they presented plans to equip all classrooms that aren't now cooled with portable window air conditioners.
"The problem in the public school construction maintenance reporting has not been a result of a lack of funds or staff resources," Hogan said.
The state Board of Public Works on Wednesday held back millions of dollars in school construction money for Baltimore County and Baltimore City, unless they come up with plans to install portable air conditioning in classrooms by the start of the next school year in the fall.
The governor pointed to a legislative audit last month that showed that as of December, the agency had not completed paperwork on 72 percent of the inspections it conducted over the preceding three years.
The Republican governor's refusal to let Lever explain the agency's recommendationsbrought a rebuke from Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, a Democrat who represents the General Assembly on the three-member board.
"It seemed to me to be a little duplicitous," she said.
Kopp disputed Hogan's characterization of the lag in maintenance reporting as a threat to safety and health.
"It is not really the primary health and safety inspection," Kopp said. "That's the province of the local safety officials."
Kopp noted that the agency has until recently had two of the four positions in its maintenance inspections filled. She said low salaries had made it difficult to retain employees. "You can't do the work of four people with two people. That's just common sense," she said.
The confrontation came as the school construction agency had three relatively routine items on the board agenda. Franchot, a longtime critic, said he wanted to question officials about the items.
But nobody was present to speak for the agency. Hogan then acknowledged that he "disinvited" Lever, who resigned in May but will remain on the job until Sept. 1.
Franchot, a Democrat who is closely allied with Hogan, moved to defer action on the agency's requests. Hogan agreed over Kopp's dissent.
After that vote was taken, Lever entered the State House meeting room and announced that his deputy, Joan T. Schaefer, could not be there. When the board showed no interest in taking up the items, he left.
Afterward, board secretary Sheila McDonald said it was unclear whether the deputy had been expected to attend. Doug Mayer, a Hogan spokesman, said the governor wanted Schaefer to be there. The governor dismissed Lever as an official who had already resigned.
Lever said he had been in the State House, but not the meeting room, in case board members had questions. He said it was not clear to him that the board wanted the deputy there and that he had no intention of sending her.
"I would not send a subordinate into that situation," he said.
He said he sent a revised proposal to board members on Friday calling for 170 school inspections a year over the next four years. Previously, he had called for 100 inspections this year, down from the current target of 220.
Lever said the revision reflects the recent hiring of a qualified program manager, who filled a vacancy.
The construction chief's resignation followed a decision by the board to overturn the agency's policy against using school construction funds for window air conditioners, which it views as short-term fixes that should be paid for at the local level.
But Hogan and Franchot, pushing to speed up the cooling of classrooms in Baltimore and Baltimore County, voted May 11 to withhold money from both jurisdictions if they didn't come up with a plan to install window air conditioners by the start of the school year. With Kopp opposed, they voted to hold back $10 million from the county and $5 million from the city.
Lever, who has headed the agency since 2003, responded with a stinging letter of resignation in which he accused the board majority of a "politicization of a process that really needs to be professional and objective." In particular, he objected to Hogan's refusal to let school officials speak at that meeting.
Hogan later told reporters that he welcomed Lever's resignation and wished he would leave sooner. The impasse over the withheld funds has not been resolved.