Scott calls on mayor to commit projected $34M surplus to HVAC improvements for city schools

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Baltimore City Public Schools headquarters on North Avenue. Photo by Eli Pousson/Baltimore Heritage, via Flickr.

Weeks after about 50 AC-less city schools ended classes early on multiple hot days, and months before chilly weather sets in, Council President Brandon Scott has asked the mayor to commit a projected $34 million surplus to address inadequate cooling and heating in schools.

Scott said council members learned of the money, still a projection at this point, at a quarterly briefing for the Council’s Budget and Appropriations Committee on Sept. 26.

In a letter this morning, he urged Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young to allocate the funds, whatever the total ends up being, to Baltimore City Public Schools’ plan to address lacking AC and poor heating in facilities. The estimated cost for installing vertical package units in schools is somewhere between $54.1 million and $67.7 million, he wrote, meaning the city could potentially cover more than half with its surplus.

“There will always be urgent, competing fiscal constraints governing our budget, but it is imperative the City contribute to these much-needed infrastructure upgrades,” Scott concluded his letter. “This is a small, but necessary step towards more robust investments in our youth.”

Under Baltimore’s charter, the mayor has the power to allocate funds while the council can cut, but not add to the city budget.

Young said at his weekly presser Wednesday morning that he hadn’t yet read Scott’s memo, but noted the council president had called him about it. Young said he respond that Scott, who is running for mayor next year, should approach the issue cautiously “because we have the Kirwan Commission and we have to look for money for that.”

The city faces a steep financial burden under recommendations made by the state’s Kirwan Commission on Tuesday. The state education reform panel, headed by former University of Maryland president William “Brit” Kirwan, has proposed a $4 billion funding plan to broadly overhaul public schools in Maryland.

Baltimore would receive hundreds of millions more in state funding under the plan, but would also have to contribute $330 million in local funds to city schools by 2030, nearly double what it gives to the school system now, and the largest increase among any jurisdiction in the state.

Young said today that he’s focused on finding ways to raise that money, and the city’s Finance Department is already exploring it. “We are going to find the money that we have to find to put up the city’s match that the state wants us to do,” the mayor said. “The state said we have to do it, we have to find it.”

But on the HVAC issues highlighted by Scott’s letter, Young said, “the school system should be addressing that on their own, really, within their own budget.”

In response to Scott’s proposed allocation, Baltimore City Public Schools said in a statement that it welcomes “any support that City leadership wants to offer to make sure that our students have access to the facilities and programming they deserve.

“As we know, outside entities have consistently documented that City Schools is underfunded annually by hundreds of millions of dollars,” a school system spokesperson said in an email. “While we’ve made progress with our plan to install air conditioning in all our schools, funding limitations slow the pace of progress on ensuring all students have access to air conditioned buildings.”

Gov. Larry Hogan has criticized the school system repeatedly–as recently as last month–over slow progress to updating AC systems.

“I am appalled that this continues to detract from the education of thousands of young Marylanders who deserve a safe, healthy, and comfortable learning environment,” he wrote in a Facebook post after a third early dismissal for dozens of city schools in September.

As a member of the state’s spending board, he’s also voted to withhold construction funding from Baltimore City and County schools in the past, demanding they first outfit facilities with air conditioning.

Lacking and inadequate AC has proven disruptive for city schools, though “heating is a bigger concern than air-conditioning,” the school system said in a January update on planned HVAC upgrades, “with students losing more days of instruction due to lack of adequate, reliable heating than to lack of cooling.”

The school district had originally aimed to have dozens of non-updated schools outfitted with vertical units, which provide both heating and cooling, by the 2022-23 school year.

But in January, it said that with installation and required electrical upgrades and other work costing $40,000-50,000 per classroom, “completion by 2022-23 is no longer possible given available funds.”

This story has been updated.

Ethan McLeod
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