AC fight heats up as school begins
School year starts on Aug. 24
Ready or not, here it comes. The first day of the 2016-2017 school year for Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) students is next Wednesday, Aug. 24.
Across the area, school staff, parents and students are preparing to kick off the school year, but there is no small measure of controversy as the year begins.
The topic is the still-sweltering summer temperatures and a newly-adopted heat closing policy that seeks to offer relief to students and staff in schools awaiting their turn to receive air conditioning.
Currently, at least 35 of 173 county public schools are without air conditioning, including eight in Dundalk (Battle Grove, Bear Creek, Berkshire, Charlesmont, Colgate, Dundalk and Grange elementary schools and Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts.)
Within the last five years, the county has installed air conditioning in at least 55 schools as part of Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenentz’s $1.3 billion Schools for Our Future program.
The program lays out a timeline for installation of air conditioning in all schools by the end of 2019 (with the exception of Berkshire and Colgate elementary schools, which will move into brand new buildings by August of 2020 and 2021, respectively.)
Under the current timeline, Battle Grove, Bear Creek, Charlesmont and Grange are slated to have air conditioning installed by August 2017, while a new Dundalk Elementary and renovated Patapsco (both with central air) should both be completed by August 2019. A new Berkshire is slated to open in August 2020, with Colgate reopening the following August.
In recent years, the lack of air conditioning in some county schools has become a hot topic, drawing the attention and ire of parents and political figures, including state Comptroller Peter Franchot.
Franchot, with support from elected officials such as Gov. Larry Hogan and state Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, has lobbied for portable air conditioning units to be used in schools as a stop-gap measure until permanent central air can be installed. For his part, Kamenetz has rejected this idea as wasteful and unnecessary given the county’s current plans. He has also pointed out that some schools will not support portable units without renovations and infrastructure upgrades.
The conflict heated up in January as the state Board of Public Works (consisting of Hogan, Franchot and state Treasurer Nancy Kopp) passed a new policy allowing for state funds to be used to purchase and install portable units.
In May, after Kamenetz had again rejected the idea of portable units, the Board voted 2 to 1 (with Kopp dissenting) to withhold $10 million (out of a total $35 million) worth of construction funds unless portable units were installed by the start of the 2016-2017 school year. Kamenetz rejected the timeline as impossible, citing a lengthy mandatory procurement process.
Kamenetz announced plans to forward-fund the missing $10 using county funds, though he noted that he would expect reimbursement from the state.
Like Franchot, state Sen. Salling has been vocally critical of Kamenetz’s 2019 timeline, calling it “a long time for 6th District children and teachers to wait.”
“In my opinion it’s too long to wait,” he wrote in a letter distributed to The Eagle, among other outlets. “If the County Executive had to sit in an office that could reach 127 degrees, action would be swift.”
“Indeed, spending money on portable air conditioners is a short-term fix,” he added. “However, the students and teachers need the deplorable hot box classrooms fixed. And they need it fixed now!”
“It would be fiscally irresponsible for the County to spend millions of dollars to put portable units in those schools for such a short period of time,” Don Mohler, chief of staff to the county executive, wrote in response to Salling’s letter.
“And let’s not forget, that the County puts up 2 dollars for every dollar that the State spends on school construction,” Mohler continued. “So I would encourage Senator Salling to use his energy to secure more State funding for students and teachers in the Baltimore County Public Schools and stop playing politics.”
Amidst the political wrangling, on Aug. 9, the Board of Education of Baltimore County passed a new policy mandating that all schools without air conditioning be closed no later than 8 p.m. the night before if the heat index (temperature with humidity factored in) is forecast to reach 90 degrees at any point the following day. Air-conditioned schools would not close.
Five county zip codes, including 21222, were selected as points of reference when determining the forecast.
The previous heat-closing policy allowed more discretion on the part of the superintendent, while this new policy makes the closings mandatory if conditions are met.
The new policy also allows students to carry water bottles and gives principals greater flexibility in relocating students to cooler parts of the school building.
Seventh District Board member June Eaton voted in favor of the policy. Asked if she was worried that the policy would lead to a loss of instructional time, she noted that the calendar will be adjusted if such closings occur.
“BCPS will adjust spring break days if we need to take more days off for inclement weather,” she explained. “BCPS must adhere to 180 days of instruction.”
Days missed due to heat will be eligible for a state waiver if the school system exceeds its pre-allotted inclement weather days.
For her part, Eaton also rejected the notion of installing portable air conditioning in schools.
She noted, “I don’t believe it would be feasible to put in window a/c in schools that are slated to be rebuild in the next couple years.”
Dundalk Elementary School parent Sherri Schaefer spoke out about stifling hot classrooms at her children’s school during a town hall meeting hosted by Comptroller Peter Franchot at North Point library last October.
Students in Baltimore County Public Schools head back to class on Aug. 24.