AC fight heats up as school be­gins

School year starts on Aug. 24

The Dundalk Eagle - - FRONT PAGE - By NICOLE ROD­MAN nrod­man@ches­pub.com

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.

PHOTO BY JANE BELLMYER

Stu­dents in Bal­ti­more County Pub­lic Schools head back to class on Aug. 24.

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