By Barry Rascovar
Watching elected officials punish school children for alleged sins of other public officials is painful and embarrassing.
Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot should be ashamed.
They aren’t, of course.
Each is on an ego trip, enjoying the power they can wield in a vanity-filled attempt to humiliate and disparage political foes. All this is being done ostensibly to help these kids, though their actions will make school kids suffer.
The issue is a parochial one – the lack of air-conditioning in many Baltimore County and Baltimore City schools.
This has been a cause celebre for Franchot, allowing him to savage former County Executive Jim Smith and County Executive Kevin Kamenetz for not installing window air conditioners in thousands of classrooms so students won’t swelter in 100-degree heat on a handful of school days each year.
The two jurisdictions have been dragging their feet for a long time. Franchot is right to bring it to public attention.
But his solution isn’t a solution at all – it exacerbates the problem.
Franchot and Hogan voted last week to withhold $10 million in school building funds from Baltimore County and $5 million from Baltimore City – unless the jurisdictions install AC in 4,000 classrooms by September.
This punitive step accomplishes nothing.
First, it is mission impossible. This massive undertaking would take far longer and requires engineering studies to figure out if such a move would overload half-century-old electrical systems. Then what do you do and who pays for it?
Second, losing $15 million means fewer schools can get a permanent solution – central air-conditioning.
Their action amounts to pure hypocrisy.
Franchot went on a 20-minute rant at the start of Board of Public Works meeting with frenzied denunciations of legislative leaders and Kamenetz. Then he did it again later on. He spewed venom toward the Senate president, the House speaker, the state attorney general, the Baltimore County executive, the board’s own school construction agency, the Baltimore Sun, and even Wall Street bond counsels.
It was a Trumpian performance filled with sound and fury – but it did nothing to fix what’s broken.
Hogan wasn’t any more reasonable.
He put on a self-important display of scripted anger, assuring everyone he was doing this for the kids.
He and Franchot played fast and loose with the facts so they could pummel Kamenetz and Democratic legislators. They were cheered on by a crowd filled with supporters, who were allowed to speak.
Anyone who might object or discuss the facts was denied permission to talk. Even State Treasurer Nancy Kopp, a BPW board member, was barely allowed to get in a word to counter the tag-team terrors.
She accurately called this “political theater” that was “outrageous and disgraceful.” Worse, it was “a travesty and illegal.”
Franchot and Hogan want to impose their will on Baltimore County and city leaders and determine education policy for them.
This is a dangerous precedent. Given complaints heard during the BPW meeting, the Hogan-Franchot duo could go after school board actions in other jurisdictions, too.
Here’s the ultimate irony.
The governor has the ability to solve this dilemma but he hasn’t lifted a finger.
Why? Because he doesn’t want to help Democrats out of a bind of their own making.
All Hogan or former Gov. Martin O’Malley had to do was include extra school construction money in his budget and earmark it specifically for air-conditioning-related engineering studies, window air-conditioners and long-term central air-conditioning projects.
It might prove expensive, but with a budget surplus in the hundreds of millions of dollars Hogan has had the cash to handle this problem. He opted not to do so. The reason is political.
He enjoys whipping up an emotional frenzy to humiliate and embarrass a potential Democratic opponent in 2018 – Kamenetz.
It has nothing to do with “the kids.” Otherwise, Hogan would have resolved the matter back in January.
Franchot knows this problem is ripe for gaining popularity with angry school parents.
It’s political for him, especially in his scripted display of righteous anger.
Hogan and Franchot didn’t want to hear the facts. They were told directly by a deputy attorney general their action would be illegal. When she tried to explain the details, Hogan cut her off.
Baltimore County’s school superintendent was there, too. Hogan wouldn’t let him speak.
The state’s long-serving director of the school construction agency quit as a result of this crude power play. Hogan was publicly gleeful.
It was a pre-arranged nasty meeting.
School construction funds for any jurisdiction now could be at risk if local politicians get on the wrong side of the tag-team villains.
It was, as Kopp noted, “the politics of fear and demagoguery.”
It could result in a lawsuit the attorney general says Hogan and Franchot could lose.
It could make Maryland bonds for school construction impossible to sell, according to Kopp, who handles all of Maryland’s bond sales.
It now looks likely that Franchot will face a strong Democratic challenge in 2018. He essentially severed ties last week with the state’s top legislative leaders and Kamenetz, who is term-limited.
Alarmed Democratic lawmakers could feel an urgency to pass veto-proof legislation next year to strip Hogan and Franchot of their ability to further politicize the state’ school construction allocations.
This could turn into a Pyrrhic victory.
There’s no doubt Baltimore City and Baltimore County failed for over a decade to confront the lack of air-conditioned classes. Local leaders never found the courage to raise taxes to pay for immediate, multi-billion-dollar school improvements.
But that is a local dilemma for local voters to address. It is not a state matter.
For Hogan and Franchot to dictate school system decisions is troubling. It could signal more moves to intervene in local matters when they think it helps them politically.