On a steamy September day that saw dozens of schools in the Baltimore region close early or not open at all, state officials approved more than $23 million in funding to bring air conditioning to more than 15 additional schools in Baltimore City and Baltimore County.
The progress was lauded by Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), who has pressed for air conditioning in the region’s schools for years, and by leaders in the county school system – many of whom are new.
But in the city, one of the lead sponsors of the legislation that created the $30 million Healthy Schools Fund to address dire safety problems in classrooms statewide, was upset to learn that a project in his district was one of just two with serious challenges that won’t get funded.
“It’s really disheartening,” Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said.
Southside Building #181, the New Era Academy in Cherry Hill, wasn’t recommended to receive $2 million for a new heating and air conditioning system by the Interagency Commission for School Construction because that project alone “will not substantially improve the educational condition of the facility, and because the [local school system] does not seem to have a sustainable plan for future improvements and use of the facility,” agency staff said in a written report.
That decision was a gut punch for Ferguson, despite other improvements approved for city schools.
“This one’s personal because the building has been such a challenge,” Ferguson said. “And Cherry Hill is a community that has been so consistently overlooked.”
The senator said he was committed to meeting with state funding officials as soon as possible to see conditions in the building – which has no air conditioning and unreliable heat.
Ferguson said it felt like the school was being shortchanged after school leaders prioritized air conditioning over other issues, though state leaders had forced the decision. In 2016, Franchot and Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) withheld $5 million and $10 million respectively from the city and county school construction budgets until they created plans to bring air conditioning to all schools.
Baltimore City Public Schools administrators are in the “unenviable” position of deciding which of many serious problems in some school buildings like the New Era Academy should be fixed first, Ferguson said.
According to a May report from Baltimore City Public Schools, about 60 of the system’s school buildings lack air conditioning, but heating and other concerns can be bigger issues in some locations.
“City Schools does not have sufficient funds to address these needs or even to perform necessary and basic preventative maintenance with the frequency recommended under industry standards, including to critical mechanical, plumbing, electrical, and security systems,” the report said. “It is also the case that heating is a bigger concern than air-conditioning, with students losing more days of instruction due to lack of adequate, reliable heating than to cooling.”
Baltimore City Public Schools is working on a plan to install air conditioning projects at all schools by the 2022-23 school year, through a variety of local and state funding programs.
Five city schools received about $9 million in funding through the Healthy Schools Facility Fund on Thursday.
The commission also made adjustments Thursday to HVAC plans at 10 schools through a program that dedicated an additional $15 million to the city’s effort. Five of 21 projects funded by that program have been completed; the others are underway.
The funding push for air conditioning, as well as other health and life safety issues in schools, will continue.
The 2018 Healthy Schools Fund legislation authorized at least an additional $30 million for health and safety concerns in fiscal year 2021. This year, local school systems requested funding for 93 immediate and non-immediate health concerns in schools; 62 projects were approved in 10 counties.
The funding for Baltimore County – $13.46 million to install or update HVAC systems at seven schools – brings that system close to its goal of providing universal air conditioning.
The eight school buildings in Baltimore County that remain without air conditioning were closed on Thursday because of the heat. Four of them received requested funding at the IAC meeting. Two elementary schools without air conditioning are expected to be rebuilt by 2020, Baltimore County Public Schools spokesman Brandon Oland said.
“We’re making great progress,” he said. “We’re certainly appreciative of anything that can be done to cool our buildings.”
Franchot, on Facebook, celebrated the county’s progress. He said supporters and parents faced threats, resistance and lies in their quest for air conditioning. Franchot also noted that the Legislature stripped the Board of Public Works – which consists of the governor, comptroller and state treasurer – of some oversight over school building projects in response to the withheld funds and other disagreements.
“Can’t tell you how grateful I am for those exceptional public servants and community activists who pushed through all of that in order to bring us to this point,” he wrote.
When Hogan and Franchot – over the opposition of Treasurer Nancy Kopp (D) – voted to withhold the funding in 2016, there were 48 schools in the county and 76 in the city that lacked air conditioning.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to add more detail about Board of Public Works actions in 2016.