Heat-induced school closures in Baltimore make for testy rhetoric at Board of Public Works

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From left: Maryland Treasurer Nancy Kopp, Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot. Still via video from BPW.

The governor skewering the superintendent of Baltimore City Public Schools over heat-induced school closures and dismissals; Maryland’s comptroller pointing fingers at General Assembly leaders over blocking him and others out on school spending decisions; the state’s treasurer accusing both of those guys of milking the spotlight during campaign season. All of this, ignited by Baltimore-area schools’ struggles with summertime heat, kicked off what may have otherwise been a routine afternoon of spending decisions for Gov. Larry Hogan’s Board of Public Works Wednesday.

The heated rhetoric came as six dozen Baltimore City schools again dismissed three hours early due to high temperatures and a lack of adequate or any air conditioning. Another 10 schools in Baltimore County remained closed for the second straight day of the new school year due to lack of air conditioning

“It is completely unacceptable that these same two jurisdictions are back in this exact same position again this year, starting the school year without air conditioning,” Hogan said, kicking off a 20-minute pseudo press conference before the BPW’s meeting.

The governor accused Baltimore City Schools Superintendent Dr. Sonja Santelises of failing to make good on previous assurances that seven schools would be equipped with air conditioning by the 2017-18 school year. He noted that City Schools’ since-retired chief operating officer, Keith Scroggins, falsely told the board in October 2017 that the $6 million worth of installations at all seven schools had been completed. City Schools later revised that timeline, saying the installations would be done by September of 2019.

“I have the transcripts of all of this right here,” Hogan said, waving a handful of papers. “All of it was completely false. They didn’t do any of it.”

Hogan also accused the city of “reverting back” $66 million in state school construction funding “because they could not or would not use it to fix these HVAC issues.” Hogan was referring to the complicated, problematic partial funding process that had once pushed Baltimore City Schools to recycle–not return–state funds when it couldn’t come up with enough of its own money to make up for unexpected overages, as is common with construction bids, in past years.

The issue of funding for HVAC fixes has been a political lightning rod in recent years. This past winter, national media homed in on the the failures of many Baltimore schools’ heating systems during particularly frigid weather, with reports depicting students huddled together in classrooms wearing winter coats. Two years earlier, the Hogan administration withheld funding from Baltimore City and County schools until they offered plans to update buildings with air conditioning.

The state’s Interagency Committee on School Construction eliminated the partial funding process this year.

Treasurer Nancy Kopp, a Democrat who joins Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot—also a Democrat—on the three-member Board of Public Works, corrected Hogan on his error about the $66 million figure. She also argued, reasonably, that Baltimore City Schools suffered more than other jurisdictions under the old partial funding scheme, since wealthier systems like Montgomery County are better-endowed with funds to throw at projects and account for unexpected costs.

City Schools was “putting in about $20 million a year, whereas the other jurisdictions have been putting in over $100 million, and that adds up and makes a big difference,” Kopp said.

And while Hogan harped on the city school system, noting it receives more funding per pupil than other jurisdictions, Kopp defended City Schools’ record of completing air conditioning installations in recent years.

“In fact, the city is on track with plans for installing the air conditioners,” she said, pointing to the same timeline shared by the school system on Twitter yesterday: 12 schools were outfitted with air conditioning in 2016 and 2017, and another 12 were set to receive it this year. Hogan interrupted her, laughing and uttering, “No they’re really not,” and, “they’re 10 years behind”; Kopp responded, “These are numbers you can check,” and continued.

City Schools has not responded to an email requesting comment on Hogan’s criticism, though the system defended itself Wednesday in a series of tweets.

When his turn arrived at the mic, an animated Franchot repeated a statistic several times: 44,468 students, he said, are being “cheated out of their educational—our educational responsibility—to give them a public school education.”

The air conditioning issues in Baltimore City and County schools could have been dealt with 10 years ago, Franchot said, when he first encountered the ongoing HVAC-related issues in both systems. But that progress has been delayed “because of simple political retribution,” he said, specifically calling out longtime state Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch. He said they created the 21st Century School Facilities Commission, formed in 2016 to reevaluate school construction needs across the state, “in political response” to himself and others.

He added that the commission, the General Assembly and others had meddled with BPW’s moves to allow school systems to pay for their own air conditioning fixes using allocated state construction money. The General Assembly notably stripped the BPW of its ability to approve school construction funding decisions this past legislative session, and overrode a veto of the legislation by Hogan.

“There are 44,468 students right now that are feeling the consequences of what these individuals did downstairs,” Franchot said, later adding, “This has all been about political fun and games.”

Kopp, for her part, suggested Hogan’s re-election bid may have been influencing his and Franchot’s feisty rhetoric at today’s BPW meeting.

“I think that there will be plenty of time in the future to talk seriously about our schools, about the school construction issues, about funding, and about education, which would be a good thing—preferably after the campaign season is over.”

The governor took exception to that.

“To insinuate that this is all about politics and a campaign that’s coming up, when 44,000 kids can’t go to school and 70 schools are closed, is outrageous,” he told Kopp. “This has nothing to do with politics. This is about the kids.”

Ethan McLeod
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