The Air-Conditioning Fight

The following column was published September 30, 2015 by the Carroll County Times in the newspaper’s Community Times weekly edition.

By Barry Rascovar

Thank goodness for the cool breezes of fall.

That’s what thousands of students and their parents are saying these days in Owings Mills, Pikesville and Reisterstown, where some county public schools still lack air-conditioning.

It’s not a new situation. I wrote about it this summer. The problem goes back several decades.

Yet no one in county government sees an urgency in coming up with a solution ASAP.

Now Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has been criticized by Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and Comptroller Peter Franchot.

Hogan called the lack of school air-conditioning “absolutely disgraceful and unacceptable.” Franchot, who complained years ago about this situation, said, “It’s a question of leadership, management and priorities.”

They’re right. Yet neither state official is providing any help to resolve this vexing problem in Baltimore County, where four dozen schools don’t provide air-conditioning in classrooms.

That’s not a concern these days with crisp, cool weather heralding a welcome change in the seasons.

But come mid-May through June and late-August through mid-September next year, schools without A/C will broil, leaving students struggling to learn.

Kamenetz, unlike his predecessors, has embarked on a $1.3 billion school improvement program that eventually will bring air-conditioning to nearly every education building, including four schools in our area – Bedford, Campfield and Church Lane Elementary Schools and Franklin Middle School.

But Kamenetz is unwilling to break the bank to pay for an immediate fix. His plan could take a decade to achieve.

That’s where Hogan can play a major role.

He’s got the power to recommend set-aside funds in Maryland’s public school construction program for air-conditioning.

That would be a huge boon for Baltimore County as well as Baltimore City, where over half the schools lack air-conditioned classrooms.

Impoverished Baltimore City cannot afford to place window air-conditioners in all of those schools and Baltimore County would be strapped to take that approach on its own, too.

Hogan, though, can place funds in his next budget in January to ensure that every school in Maryland has either central air-conditioning or window A/C units.

Unfortunately, this debate has produced a hash political tone, with Hogan threatening to withhold all school construction funds from Baltimore County unless immediate steps are taken.

That’s unwise posturing. It ignores the reality that Hogan, not Kamenetz, is in the best position to put up funds to see that every Maryland classroom is air-conditioned.

Hogan also can help schools that are showing their age if he puts up extra money to address physical defects in Maryland’s oldest public education structures. Owings Mills Elementary School, for instance, was built nearly 90 years ago and ranks near the bottom among the county’s schools as far as physical condition.

Maryland made a wise decision 40 years ago when the late Gov. Marvin Mandel relieved the counties of an enormous financial burden by having the state contribute most of the funds for public school construction.

Only Hawaii matches Maryland’s largess. It is a step that makes sure Maryland children are educated in decent facilities with modern conveniences.

But the job is not done. Older schools with deteriorating roofs, bad plumbing and no air-conditioning should be a state priority.

Hogan and Franchot want Kamenetz and county school superintendent Dallas Dance to appear at the Oct. 7 Board of Public Works meeting to explain why so many county schools lack air-conditioning.

Is this a publicity stunt? Let’s hope not.

Hogan, Franchot and Kamenetz should focus on coming up with answers that will get air-conditioning in all county classrooms by next spring.

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