ANNAPOLIS – On the hottest days of the school year, 7-year-old Elizabeth Southworth comes home with a flushed face and her clothes soaked through with sweat. Her school, Middleborough Elementary, is among 65 in Baltimore County without air conditioning.
On Wednesday, Elizabeth’s father Alan Southworth and other Baltimore County parents asked the Board of Public Works to deny the county’s $7 million request for school construction spending, a proposal that included a locker room renovation and stage lighting replacement project, but not the installation of a single air conditioning unit.
Two of the board’s three members, Gov. Martin O’Malley and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, thanked the parents for coming before the board and encouraged them to take up local school issues in a more appropriate forum – before their county school board. But the parents claimed that they were ignored by school and local government officials.
“I feel like my local government has failed me,” said Cathy Fialkowski, a parent who wrote to her delegates, council members and the school board.
Several elementary-aged children spoke about how uncomfortable they are at school during warm months, unable to concentrate and often making trips to the school nurse’s office.
Alan Southworth, whose daughter Elizabeth was one of several kids who spoke, said he received an email from Elizabeth’s teacher at 7:30 a.m. one day, alerting him to the fact that her classroom was already 94 degrees.
“These are our kids,” Southworth said. “We’re not going away.”
The third member of the board, Comptroller Peter Franchot, was also critical of the proposal, which prioritized window and locker replacement ahead of air conditioning. He questioned Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and School Superintendent Dr. Joe Hairston on the logic of the plan, given that so many of Baltimore County’s 172 schools remain without air conditioning.
“These people have been blown off,” Franchot said. “They’re here because they want help for their kids.”
Kamenetz argued that the roof and window repairs are more prudent because they have year-round implications, adding that the installation of central air conditioning in every school in need has a $400 million price tag.
Franchot countered that this large expenditure does not include the more cost-effective option of installing window units instead of central air.
“This is not rocket science. This has been done,” Franchot said, referring to the 26 elementary schools in Anne Arundel County that received window units 10 years ago.
The average cost of window units in each of the Anne Arundel County schools was $123,000. By this standard, and with a 20 percent increase to account for inflation, Franchot said the cost of installing air conditioning in one elementary school in Baltimore County would be significantly less than the $200,000 the county intends to spend on environmentally sustainable stage lighting in a Pikesville middle school.
“Our goal is to spend the money judiciously for permanent solutions, not stop-gap solutions,” Kamenetz said.
Franchot proposed a motion to force the county to allocate half of the $7 million in alcohol tax money for air conditioning. But the board did not support the motion and voted in favor of the original proposal. Franchot cast the only dissenting vote.