By Barry Rascovar
In a bizarre twist, we might witness a preview of the 2018 gubernatorial campaign at the next Board of Public Works meeting.
Then again, a threatened confrontation between Republican Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. and Democratic Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz may never occur.
Even more bizarre is the issue that could bring these potential foes into a debate arena: air-conditioning.
Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot, D, his tag-team partner in beating up on unsuspecting officials at BPW meetings, blame Kamenetz for allowing thousands of county children to swelter through hot, early- and late-summer days because their schools lack A/C.
Four dozen Baltimore County schools have no air-conditioning, which is shameful.
But Kamenetz is not to blame, nor is current county school superintendent Dallas Dance.
Hogan and Franchot are pointing accusing fingers at the wrong individuals.
$1.3 Billion in Upgrades
If the two men did some basic research they would find that Kamenetz and Dance are trying hard to rectify this sorry situation, which has been festering for decades.
They have embarked on a $1.3 billion school renovation program that will bring A/C and other upgrades to 99 percent of county schools within a decade.
Accelerating the county executive’s remediation plan – and how to do it — ought to be the focus of this debate.
More likely is a battle of angry words with Hogan and Franchot having a field day criticizing Baltimore County’s mistreatment of school kids.
On the surface, Hogan and Franchot are right. No child in today’s public schools should have to sit all day in classrooms that top 90 or 100 degrees.
But what are Hogan and Franchot doing to eliminate this intolerable situation other than voice displeasure?
Neither official has lifted a finger to bring A/C to more schools in Baltimore County.
And what about Baltimore City, where over half the schools lack air-conditioning? Why aren’t Hogan and Franchot livid about that even more appalling situation?
The reason is politics.
2018 political foes?
Hogan sees a chance to embarrass a likely opponent in the 2018 gubernatorial campaign. Franchot sees an opportunity to tarnish a potential rival for the 2018 Democratic nomination for governor.
Odd bedfellows, indeed.
The two men not only denounced Kamenetz for Baltimore County’s un-air-conditioned schools, they requested that he and Dance appear before the Board of Public Works in early October.
But there’s nothing on the board’s agenda that requires Kamenetz and Dance to show up in Annapolis on Oct. 7. Neither the governor nor the comptroller can force such attendance.
Still, it makes for good theater when politicians call-out a potential foe.
If the confrontation takes place, it may not be a propaganda victory for Hogan and Franchot. Indeed, they could end up with egg on their faces.
Kamenetz complained about the lack of air-conditioning when he ran for county executive five years ago. Since taking office, he has reduced the percentage of no-air-conditioned schools from 52 percent to 20 percent with enough money appropriated to lower that figure to 15 percent.
By 2021, he wants A/C in nearly every one of the county’s 173 school buildings, or at least have the money in hand to begin the work.
Clearly, Kamenetz and Dance are part of the solution, not part of the problem.
If Hogan and Franchot want to blame someone, they should chastise former Baltimore County school chiefs and former county executives Jim Smith and Dutch Ruppersberger. They are the ones who dropped the ball and failed to make air-conditioned schools the county’s highest priority.
Indeed, the real culprits are bureaucrats in the county’s school system who made some astounding blunders beginning 15 or 16 years ago.
Back then, school officials hired an out of state company to analyze the physical defects of county schools. The estimated repair costs, including air conditioning: $130 million.
But county officials delayed acting on those expensive recommendations. Each year, work was put off. Nearly a decade later, the county asked the state for funds to begin the long-overdue school renovations.
Yet no one updated the original report to account for soaring construction costs.
Lack of funds
Thus, when engineering firms were hired to start the school repairs, the county found itself woefully short of funds.
Then the county goofed again, asking the engineers to fix only the highest priority items at each school. Plumbing defects, leafy roofs and dangerous electrical wiring took precedence, not air-conditioning.
The engineering firms complained that this made no sense. Why not use available funds to totally renovate the schools in the worst shape and ask the state for more money to renovate the other county schools over the next few years?
Those complaints were ignored.
A renovation at Ridgely Middle School under Smith’s administration somehow managed to overlook the need for air-conditioning and windows that opened for ventilation. Franchot heard about that debacle and showed up at the school to lend support to the angry parents.
Not until Kamenetz arrived as county executive in 2010 did air-conditioning become a priority.
Solutions, not complaints
At this stage, what needs to happen is for Kamenetz and Hogan to agree on a speed-up of the county’s air-conditioning timetable. How that will be financed is the key question.
Both of them must put more school construction money on the table, even if the money goes toward window air-conditioners in some schools until a more permanent fix is completed. (Anne Arundel County air-conditioned 20 of its elementary schools with window units, getting a huge discount by making a bulk purchase of commercial air-conditioners.)
Hogan, though, has been Scrooge-like in spending state dollars. Kamenetz, too, has shied away from spending that could mean a tax increase.
The time has come to fashion a solution rather than using school children as political pawns.
The campaign for governor can wait. There’s no reason to begin the blood-letting at this early stage.
But there is every reason to try to come up with a solution that will bring air-conditioning to every classroom, not only in Baltimore County but in all Maryland schools.