A debate over whether Baltimore-area schools can spend money on portable air-conditioning units has mushroomed into a power struggle involving some of Maryland’s top elected officials.
The Board of Public Works, which oversees state money for school construction, voted 2 to 1 Wednesday to withhold $15 million in capital funds for schools in Baltimore city and county until those jurisdictions produce plans to use window-box air- conditioning units as a short-term fix to address a lack of cooling systems in their schools.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) voted to withhold the money, over the objections of the board’s third member, state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D).
In a separate 2-to-1 decision, the panel finalized a rule change that would allow school districts to buy portable air conditioners despite a state policy against the use of state or federal money for such purchases, in part because of energy-efficiency concerns.
The votes prompted the head of the Interagency Committee on School Construction, which established the ban on portable air conditioners, to resign.
David Lever, the committee’s executive director, called the votes an “exercise of blunt authority [that] . . . substitutes the preferences of the Board of Public Works for the expertise of a range of local and state individuals who have made education and school facility matters their life’s work.”
At the meeting, Franchot blasted Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) for trying to prevent the rule modification by passing legislation this year that effectively nullifies any decision by the Board of Public Works made after Jan. 1 on school construction funding policy.
Franchot called the legislation a “highly charged, highly irregular, highly unusual intervention.”
Busch said it is the state legislature’s job to set policy.
Hogan and Franchot described the stifling heat in Baltimore city and county schools — the only jurisdictions in the state that have a significant number of classrooms that lack air conditioning — as a problem that could affect students’ health and ability to concentrate.
Teens testifying at Wednesday’s board meeting agreed. “It’s hot, and it’s hard to learn,” said Keami Sullivan, 17, who attends Kenwood High in Essex.
Kopp accused Hogan and Franchot of using “fear and demagoguery” to affect local decisions. “It may be good theater, but it’s a very bad mistake,” she said.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz (D) has rejected plans for using $10 million in surplus county funds to install portable air conditioners.
He insists that the money would be better spent on a plan he laid out for adding central air conditioning to all of the jurisdiction’s schools by the end of 2019.