ANNAPOLIS — While Maryland school districts have built in extra class days for snow closings, some students got early dismissals in September — for the heat.
State officials turned the heat up on Baltimore County school officials last month after parents and students complained of the lack of air conditioning in around one-third of its schools.
Comptroller Peter Franchot thanked Baltimore County school officials working toward air conditioning the schools at last month’s Board of Public Works meeting.
“(T)hese kids … come home after school and have to sit down and wring the sweat out of their socks while they talk to their parents about the headaches,” Franchot said. He also acknowledged “the teachers, who faint, or for the public health experts who are appalled at the condition of the air inside these schools.”
Gov. Larry Hogan called Baltimore County’s air conditioning deficit “an absolutely disgraceful situation” at the meeting, shortly before calling on Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to attend the next one.
“Our focus is on making sure that these issues in Baltimore County are resolved as soon as possible,” said Erin Montgomery, a spokeswoman for the governor.
However, Kamenetz, a Democrat, is not planning to attend the meeting Wednesday due to scheduling conflicts, according to his chief of staff.
“I am thankful to the county executive, county council, state legislators and our board of education for the progress made to not only put air condition in our schools but to also modernize our schools to accommodate enrollment increases,” Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance wrote in an email. “It shows the strong partnership and commitment to all our students and families.”
Michelle Byrnie-Parker, spokeswoman for Franchot, said the meeting could be an opportunity to share Kamenetz’s record of achievement. Since taking office in 2010, he has overseen the installation of air conditioning in 48 schools, which is 30 percent of the schools in the district.
“(Air conditioning) is not something that can be required, but considering the inhumane conditions that children, teachers and other employees have had to endure, it would be in the public’s best interest for them to attend and share their point of view,” Byrnie-Parker said.
Hogan and Franchot also asked Dance and Board of Education Chair David Uhlfelder to attend the meeting. Neither plan to go, but both have provided alternative dates to meet, according to Mychael Dickerson, chief communications officer for Baltimore County Public Schools.
The Board of Public Works on Wednesday is expected to discuss approving Baltimore County’s request to sell the North Point Government Center to a developer. The Interagency Committee on School Construction approved the sale in September. The air conditioning issue does not appear on the Board of Public Works agenda.
Franchot has announced he plans to host, with state government officials, a town meeting about Baltimore County schools’ air conditioning on Tuesday evening in Arbutus.
Though Hogan, a Republican, and Franchot, a Democrat, specifically picked on Baltimore County Public Schools, which have a construction budget of $1.3 billion, other school systems around the state continue to lack air conditioning.
Health issues can arise from a lack of air conditioning. Around 10 percent of U.S. children have asthma or breathing issues, which make it much more difficult to tolerate the hot air at school, said Dr. Robert Graw, a pediatrician and CEO at Righttime Medical Care, a chain of urgent care clinics in Maryland.
“An assumption that we all have is kids come prepared the best they can with a good breakfast, a good home life, they’ve had a bath and they’ve drank fluids,” Graw said. “But when you look across the diversity of our school districts, that is not true.”
Around 10 percent of schools statewide do not have centralized air conditioning or window units, according to a January 2015 state public school construction program survey.
In Garrett County, air conditioning was lacking in 73 percent of schools in 2004, and 69 percent still lacked it during the last school year, according to the survey.
And there are four schools in Allegany County that still use coal-fired furnaces for heat, according to the county school superintendent, David Cox.
Plus, Allegany High School in Allegany County will turn 90 years old next year — making it the oldest functioning school in the state — and it still has its 1926 original coal-fired furnace operating in the basement.
There’s no air conditioning on days when temperatures soar into the 90s and there are faulty windows that let the cold air in during the winter, said Principal Mike Calhoun.
“The heat and coldness affects student learning,” Calhoun said. “There’s a lot of research that talks about that. We struggle with that here, but we adapt and we improvise — we’re troopers here.”
The high school is the only one in the county to lack some form of air conditioning, said David Lever, executive director of the state’s Interagency Committee on School Construction.
“(Allegany High School) is among the worst, but I wouldn’t say it is the worst because there are plenty of facilities that I would put in the same grouping that are equally bad,” Lever said. “It is just not suited to deliver an educational program, no matter the amount of renovation.”
The county does not have plans to install air conditioning, but is planning to build a new Allegany High School by the fall of 2017, Cox said, though the initial projection of $60 million increased by $18 million.
Surging construction costs have limited schools from improving air conditioning, Lever said.
“The big issue with a big project like Allegany High School is even if there is state money, there is some serious constraint on local abilities to fund it,” Lever said. “Since the beginning of the recession there has been a major constraint in the capital improvement requests along with the local fiscal constraints.”
Overall, the statewide fight over air conditioning comes down to a short-term approach versus a long-term fix, Lever said.
A short-term fix would include installing window units, but window units are not funded by the state, because they have less than a 15-year life span, Lever said.
“These units are energy inefficient compared to a central system,” Lever said. “Window units also require a high amount of maintenance and repair.”
Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties have taken steps to solve their air conditioning issues by placing window units, funded by the county, in each of their schools. Prince George’s County schools, for example, increased air conditioning in schools from 73 percent in 2004 to 100 percent in 2011.