Baltimore County on Wednesday said it would advance itself $45 million in future state funds to install central air conditioning in virtually all of its schools by August 2018, a response to pressure from Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Comptroller Peter Franchot (D).
The decision by Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz (D) was the latest development in a battle over how to cool classrooms and accelerates the county’s installation timeline by one year.
A divided state Board of Public Works voted 2 to 1 last week to withhold $15 million in school-construction funds from Baltimore and Baltimore County until they came up with a plan to have air conditioning in all classrooms by late August.
The board also voted 2 to 1 to lift a state ban on purchasing window air conditioners. Hogan and Franchot, who sit on the board, supported both moves over objections from the third board member, state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D).
The board’s actions prompted the resignation of the state’s school-construction chief, David Lever, who accused Hogan and Franchot of 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.”
Kamenetz said that Hogan withheld the money as “ransom so that we would capitulate.”
“It’s ridiculous that we have to advance the state’s share of funding to do the job right in the first place,” he added.
Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said the Board of Public Works will review the county’s plan once it is officially submitted but that the governor has major concerns.
“Until now, Baltimore County residents have been told that rapid progress on air conditioning in county schools was impossible,” he said. “But without much explanation, the County Executive has announced a significant reversal in policy.”
The $45 million for air conditioning will initially come from surplus county funds and operational accounts, with the state gradually reimbursing the cost as part of its annual matching school-construction contributions.
Baltimore and Baltimore County are the only jurisdictions in the state with a significant number of classrooms that don’t have cooling systems. In 2011, the county launched a $1.3 billion initiative to modernize its facilities.
Under the plan Kamenetz announced Wednesday, all middle and elementary schools would have central air by the fall of 2017, while all high schools would have it by fall 2018.
Earlier Wednesday, the state’s Interagency Committee on School Construction tried to distance itself from the air-conditioning war, saying the panel was not responsible for figuring out how to achieve the $15 million funding reduction ordered by Hogan and Franchot.
“My ideal solution is to punt this back to the Board of Public Works,” said committee member Barbara A. Hoffman. “I think the more we can keep the committee out of this, the better for our future.”
The panel, which recommends funding for school-construction projects after reviewing every district’s proposals, voted unanimously to draft a letter to the Board of Public Works telling it to identify what should be cut.
Kamenetz previously rejected plans for using county surplus money to install portable air conditioners as a temporary fix, insisting that the funds would be better spent on installing central air conditioning to all of the jurisdiction’s schools by the end of 2019.
Hogan and Franchot say the schools need a faster fix, but local officials say their time frame is unrealistic.
This week, Baltimore City school officials asked the Board of Public Works to reconsider its vote to withhold funding, calling the move “punitive and unreasonable.”
Tammy L. Turner, the school district’s acting chief executive, said the system will be “forced to choose between much-needed fire safety, roofs, boilers, and window projects that are essential to the safety and security of our students, and the BPW’s unprecedented mandate to install portable air-conditioning units within an unreasonable time frame.”
Kopp and other elected officials have suggested that the air-conditioning controversy is politically motivated. Some say privately that they suspect Hogan and Franchot are trying to embarrass Kamenetz, who is widely considered a potential Democratic candidate for governor in 2018.
Franchot is also seen as a potential gubernatorial candidate.
The fight also has drawn the attention of the Democratic-majority state legislature, which earlier this year passed a bill that would nullify certain Board of Public Works decisions — including on school-construction funding — made after Jan. 1.