As blistering temperatures Wednesday shuttered dozens of Maryland schools with inadequate air conditioning, the two men running to be governor were embroiled in a second straight day of finger-pointing over the issue.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) blamed local officials for failing to ensure bearable temperatures despite his efforts to apply public pressure and some additional state funding in recent years, and to penalize school districts that do not have working cooling systems in place.
“It’s completely unacceptable,” Hogan said Wednesday during a Board of Public Works meeting in Annapolis. “I can assure you that we’re going to continue to press to get answers and continue to press to get action.”
His Democratic challenger, Ben Jealous, went to Laurel High School in Prince George’s County, which was closing early because of the heat, and used the moment to question the effectiveness of Hogan’s leadership.
“This is not a time for a governor to stand in an air-conditioned room in the state capital and make pronouncements,” Jealous said, appearing before reporters in 90-degree noontime heat.
“It’s time for a governor to be on the ground pulling together leaders and leading — figuring out how to solve it,” Jealous said. “The governor likes to throw local leaders under the bus. . . . Today, we’re seeing the fruits of that approach.”
Students in all Prince George’s County schools and dozens more in Baltimore City were released early Wednesday as the heat index climbed above 100 degrees. Baltimore County officials preemptively canceled school in 10 buildings that do not have central air conditioning and said late Wednesday that they will be closed Thursday, as well — a third consecutive day.
Dejah Anderson, a 16-year-old student at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, said she wasn’t sure whom to blame for the closures. But, really, she said, it doesn’t matter.
“It should just get fixed, honestly,” Anderson said. “Just get the air conditioning fixed.”
In West Baltimore, parents waited in the shade to pick up children from Roots and Branches School, a public charter elementary school that also closed early. Several expressed resignation about the condition of public schools in the city and disbelief that the outcome of the governor’s race would improve their situation.
“Everybody has something to do with it,” said Alfred Camphor, 41, who picked up his 9-year-old daughter. “The lack of caring has gotten worse.”
Camphor said he’s been closely watching the governor’s race and remains undecided. Hogan has done little to improve Baltimore’s schools, he said. But he added that Jealous, a first-time candidate and former NAACP president, has not yet convinced him that he could do better.
Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), a Hogan ally who has unsuccessfully lobbied local leaders for more than a decade to install window AC units as a stopgap measure, estimated that more than 44,000 students in the Baltimore region missed school Wednesday because classrooms were too hot. Temperatures were forecast to be just as high on Thursday.
The problem is most pronounced around Baltimore, where scores of aging schools lack air conditioning altogether. Some schools in the cash-strapped city system cannot afford to replace failing HVAC systems, leaving students wearing jackets indoors during winter time.
The three-member spending panel, which also includes Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), approved more than $6 million in emergency aid for Baltimore in 2017, to pay for air-conditioning work they expected to be finished in time for school to start that September. Hogan said Wednesday those projects still are not completed.
Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said the governor has put record school construction funding in his budgets for each of the past four years, withheld money from school districts that didn’t fix air conditioning, forced Baltimore city officials to publicly promise to fix the air conditioning on time and doled out emergency money to help.
“What else is Governor Hogan supposed to do?” she asked.
Jealous offered two ideas, which he said he developed after discussing the issue with Baltimore school officials and reflect his experience as a venture capitalist.
He said the state or private industry could finance the upfront replacement of all heating and cooling systems in Baltimore, most of which are more than 30 years old, and use the money saved on operating the more efficient systems to repay the debt within three years.
Jealous also recommended that the state — or perhaps energy companies — finance flat metal roofs and solar panels on schools, environmental investments that he said eventually would pay for themselves.
“You don’t need the state to give you more money. You just need somebody who will finance replacing [the systems] all at once,” Jealous said.
At Roots and Branches, Quinny Smith, 48, signed out her 8-year-old son after picking up two grandchildren an hour earlier from nearby Harlem Park Elementary School.
She said responsibility for getting air conditioning in the schools has “got to come from the governor. . . . This should have been done before the school year started.”
But Smith said she was unsure whether Hogan or Jealous would be better for Baltimore’s schools.
“I’m over it,” she said of the governor’s race, as she led the children away.
Rachel Chason and Reis Thebault contributed to this report.