By Len Lazarick
What began at least four years ago as a personal crusade by Comptroller Peter Franchot to get air conditioning for hot Baltimore County classrooms has now turned into a cause celebre involving the governor, his cabinet secretaries and the presiding officers of the Maryland General Assembly.
The heat on this political pot was turned up last week when Tim Maloney, a former delegate who represents the Senate on the Interagency Committee on School Construction, proposed deferring action on a plan to allow $15 million to be used to put room air conditioners in 1,561 classrooms. Most of them are in Baltimore County (1,109) and Baltimore City (416).
Baltimore County is planning to add central air conditioning to all schools by 2021 as they are renovated or replaced, but the room air conditioners are intended to cool students in the meantime.
Maloney asked for “further consultation with the members of the Board of Public Works and the leadership of the General Assembly,” according to a letter to the board. The Board of Public Works includes the comptroller, the state treasurer and the governor, who chairs the board.
In an email responding to MarylandReporter.com, Maloney said, “This issue is a significant policy issue and there needs to be some legislative input on it – hopefully the Comptroller will sit down with the legislative leadership and explain his proposal.”
Former delegate John Bohanan, the House representative on the school construction committee, went along with Maloney, as did Interim State School Superintendent Jack Smith.
Gov. Larry Hogan’s representatives on the IAC, General Services Secretary Gail Bassette and Planning Secretary David Craig, voted against deferring action.
School construction funds come from 15-year general obligation bonds, and are not intended to be used for items that last less than 15 years.
Franchot requests hearing
Franchot, who had been pushing for the plan for a long time, was steamed, and he fired off a four-page letter Friday to Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch “respectfully requesting a joint legislative hearing on the subject of portable air conditioning systems in Baltimore City and Baltimore County” before the legislature convenes next month.
“The notion that the leadership of the General Assembly would force a postponement of this vote … was surprising to me and many other stakeholders,” said Franchot.
Late Monday afternoon, Alexandra Hughes, Busch’s chief of staff, said, “President Miller and the Speaker are crafting a response.”
The simmering controversy on air conditioning boiled over at a Board of Public Works meeting Sept. 16 when both Hogan and Franchot castigated Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who was not at the meeting, for failure to help sweltering students and teachers. Baltimore County shortened the school day or canceled after-school activities three times in September due to heat.
All get central air by 2021
Kamenetz has responded, as he has consistently, that the county’s older schools will get central air conditioning as part of a long-term program of renovation and replacement, which many schools have already received. All county schools will be air conditioned by 2021.
Kamenetz said many of the schools targeted by Franchot do not have the kind of windows or electrical systems that will permit portable air conditioning.
The plan that Interagency Committee deferred last week, described in the letter, took account of those problems by budgeting for replacing window sections, building supports for the air conditioners, and upgrading the electrical systems.
That’s why the average cost of installing the air conditioners for each classroom is $9,700.
At the Dec. 2 Board of Public Works meeting, Hogan and Franchot had an extended discussion with Alex Szachnowicz, chief operating officer of Anne Arundel County schools, on how that system installed portable air conditioning in older schools several years ago.
The controversy has taken on heavy political overtones this past year as Kamenetz is seen as a potential rival candidate for governor by both Democrat Franchot and Republican Hogan.