ANNAPOLIS — Two of Maryland’s top elected officials blasted two school systems for a lack of air conditioning in some classrooms that has resulted in heat-related early dismissals and school closings for the second time since classes resumed this week.
The heated words, or hot air to some critical of Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot, dominated much of Wednesday’s Board of Public Works meeting and is quickly becoming an issue in the 2018 campaign. Franchot fired back at some who say this is just an election-year issue, blaming members of his own party in the state legislature for freezing efforts to provide climate control in classrooms in Baltimore City and Baltimore County.
“This is a game that’s been going on between three or four people downstairs (in the General Assembly) — the speaker, the Senate president, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee and somewhat the Senate Budget and Tax Committee,” said Franchot, specifically referencing House Speaker Michael Busch, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and Del. Maggie McIntosh.
For the second consecutive day Baltimore city ordered five dozen schools to dismiss early and students at 10 Baltimore County schools without air conditioning were told not to go to classes at all.
“They’ve had a lot of fun and games dangling all of these actions: ‘We’re going to do this. We’re going to do that,'” said Franchot. “Fun and games are over.”
In the last two years the legislature has sought to curb the influence of the three-member Board of Public Works as Hogan and Franchot had chided lawmakers and school system leaders over maintenance issues and air-conditioned classrooms. Last year, the General Assembly stripped the board of its oversight on allocation of state aid for school construction and reconstituted a state panel into an independent commission.
Franchot called such moves “simple political retribution.”
Spokespersons for Busch and Miller declined comment.
Hogan Tuesday called the initial closures in Baltimore City and Baltimore County “outrageous and disgusting.” On Wednesday, he expressed frustration with city officials, whom he said had promised to have air conditioning installed in many of the closed schools by the start of the 2017-2018 school year.
Hogan blasted city school officials for breaking their word and not repairing or installing air conditioning at schools that were closed early this week after promising to do so.
“It’s not a false narrative,” said Hogan, who at one point held up transcripts of early board meetings. “They’re facts. They’re on the record in their own words.”
In messages posted on social media, city school system officials said they continue to upgrade school heating and cooling systems.
“As indicated in our state-approved plan, AC was installed in 2016 and 2017 in 12 facilities. As per the plan, another 12 facilities will receive AC in 2018. Plan is on track,” according to a statement posted by the school system on its Twitter account.
The third member of the Board of Public Works, Treasurer Nancy Kopp, defended the city school system, saying it was completing repair and upgrades.
“One of the problems that is quite real is that the city, unfortunately, does not have the resources that Montgomery County or Baltimore County have to put into their share,” said Kopp. “That adds up and that makes a difference.”
“While we all want the plan and we want the plan to be held to and we’re all for accountability in this area, and clearly we’re not where we want to be or schools wouldn’t have to be closed early, I don’t think that the people around the state should be left with the impression that there has been no progress, because there has,” Kopp said.
Ben Jealous, the Democratic nominee for governor, also was hot under the collar because of a lack of air-conditioned classrooms. He laid the blame on Hogan.
“There’s a profound lack of leadership,” said Jealous.
Jealous spoke at an appearance in Prince George’s County, where schools closed two hours early because of the heat and inadequate air conditioning in many schools.
Jealous said Hogan could find different ways to finance upgrades in school needs, such as solar panels on top of schools that would pay for themselves with savings from lower electricity bills.
“It’s about money. It’s about financing. But it’s ultimately about leadership,” said Jealous.
Jealous criticized Hogan on education funding tied to the operation of school systems but also for what he said was the governor’s failure to solve climate issues in school systems around the state.
In Maryland, school construction and renovation funding comes from a combination of state and local budgets. Local school systems and counties compete for their share of hundreds of millions each year in state bond money with projects being requested and prioritized by local governments and recommended by the Interagency Commission on School Construction. In most cases, school systems around the state take home a share of annual school construction and renovation funding relative to their percentage of state population.
The amount of annual of requests for school construction and renovation aid consistently outstrips the state and local government’s funding capabilities.
A 2016 report to the Knott Commission on school construction funding found that requests for aid would exceed $4.5 billion over six years. State aid available for that same period was estimated at $1.5 billion.