Air con­di­tion­ing as a civil right?

Our view: Comptroller finds a new way to flog the school AC is­sue be­yond credulity

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

The U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice Civil Rights Di­vi­sion has for nearly 60 years fought against dis­crim­i­na­tion on the ba­sis of race, color, sex, dis­abil­ity, re­li­gion, fa­mil­ial sta­tus and na­tional ori­gin. It has not, at least to date, sought to end dis­crim­i­na­tion based on room tem­per­a­ture. While stand­ing up for those who lack the crea­ture com­forts many of us take for granted can be a no­ble cause, it sim­ply isn’t an is­sue of civil rights.

Yet that hasn’t stopped Comptroller Peter Fran­chot from sub­mit­ting a let­ter (co-signed by the pres­i­dent of the Mary­land chap­ter of the NAACP) to the agency seek­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the lack of air con­di­tion­ing in cer­tain Bal­ti­more City and Bal­ti­more County schools on be­half of low-in­come fam­i­lies as a “bla­tant ne­glect of their civil rights.”

Laugh­able and a thor­ough mis­un­der­stand­ing of the fed­eral Civil Rights Act? Yes. A waste of time? Ab­so­lutely. Yet some­how we are not sur­prised. Mr. Fran­chot long ago took valid con­cern about air con­di­tion­ing in schools and stretched it be­yond the bounds of rea­son. But that’s just the tip of this par­tic­u­lar ice­berg of lu­nacy. An anal­y­sis of the 37 Bal­ti­more County pub­lic schools that lack air con­di­tion­ing re­veals that in terms of an ac­tual area of dis­crim­i­na­tion NAACP chap­ters are nor­mally most con­cerned about — dis­crim­i­na­tion based on race — the sys­tem must be found not guilty. Among the schools lack­ing AC, African-Amer­i­can stu­dents rep­re­sent 30 per­cent of the en­roll­ment in el­e­men­tary schools, 39 per­cent in the mid­dle schools and 42 per­cent in the high schools — or roughly the same as the school sys­tem’s over­all African-Amer­i­can en­roll­ment of 39 per­cent.

That’s ac­tu­ally a pretty re­mark­able ex­am­ple of ra­cial equity. In­deed, some of the schools that ei­ther lack air con­di­tion­ing or are not fully air-con­di­tioned are over­whelm­ingly white, such as Kingsville El­e­men­tary (91 per­cent white), Dum­bar­ton Mid­dle School (69 per­cent) and Pat­ap­sco High (67 per­cent). It’s cer­tainly true that the schools lack­ing air con­di­tion­ing are also more likely to have stu­dents who qual­ify for free or re­duced meals (the over­all FARM rate runs 55 per­cent to 63 per­cent among the three clas­si­fi­ca­tions of non-ACschools while the sys­temwide FARMrate is 46.8 per­cent), but even that dif­fer­ence is rel­a­tively mod­est.

As for Bal­ti­more City’s pub­lic schools, there’s ac­tu­ally a stronger case to be made that Mary­land as a whole has failed to in­vest suf­fi­ciently in the ag­ing and de­te­ri­o­rat­ing ed­u­ca­tional in­fra­struc­ture in its largest city. But sadly, such an ac­count­ing would surely in­clude the $5 mil­lion with­held from the city school sys­tem ear­lier this year by the Board of Pub­lic Works, on which Mr. Fran­chot holds the swing vote. The school con­struc­tion money was held back from Bal­ti­more to pun­ish the schools’ fail­ure to in­stall portable AC units — lo­cal of­fi­cials hav­ing ex­pressed an in­ter­est in spend­ing such funds on more press­ing con­cerns like fire safety, el­e­va­tor re­pair, roof re­place­ments and cor­roded pipes. Even now, in only six of the city’s 163 school build­ings is it con­sid­ered safe to drink from wa­ter foun­tains.

Of course, the fi­nal silli­ness of this is that even if the Jus­tice Depart­ment took up the mat­ter, as un­likely as that might be, Mr. Fran­chot’s pre­ferred rem­edy — the pur­chase and in­stal­la­tion of portable ACu­nits — would surely be moot by the time the case was set­tled. City of­fi­cials say they are al­ready act­ing on the is­sue as swiftly as pos­si­ble, with the num­ber of build­ings lack­ing AC ex­pected to de­cline from 76 to 66 next year (with a five- to six-year time frame for the re­main­der), and in Bal­ti­more County, all but 13 schools are set to have per­ma­nent air con­di­tion­ing by next year (and the rest no later than Au­gust of 2019).

In the mean­time, the only real ef­fect of this oth­er­wise mean­ing­less ges­ture by Mr. Fran­chot is to fur­ther an­tag­o­nize Demo­cratic lead­ers. The comptroller’s vi­sion of this is­sue has be­come so sin­gle-minded and op­po­si­tional that it’s un­likely that he could get Democrats in the Gen­eral Assem­bly to ap­prove any leg­is­la­tion on any sub­ject that car­ried even a hint of his in­volve­ment. Rarely has some­one elected to statewide of­fice been as widely re­viled by of­fice­hold­ers of his own party. Mr. Fran­chot can wear that an­tag­o­nism as a badge of honor in the man­ner of Sen. Ted Cruz, but when it comes to ac­tu­ally do­ing his job — cor­rect­ing the prob­lems in tax col­lec­tion re­cently re­vealed by a leg­isla­tive au­dit, for ex­am­ple — Mr. Fran­chot may find lit­tle sym­pa­thy or, more im­por­tantly, votes. And that’s not just a set­back for him; it could prove a big prob­lem for short­changed tax­pay­ers, too.

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