Tuesday’s 105-degree heat index kept 10 Baltimore County schools without air conditioning closed on the first day of the school year. In Baltimore City, more than 60 schools dismissed students early — some before noon — as a result of the heat.
The lack of air conditioning is part of a larger political fight over school funding.
While visiting Garrett Heights Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore — which has air conditioning — Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous said Tuesday that not installing new central heating and air conditioning systems in those schools that don’t is short-sighted.
“When you put in a new HVAC system to run these schools that has a decrepit old boiler, you save so much money that you can pay off the new HVAC system in a couple of years,” he said. “We should be at this point replacing outdated heating systems across the city.”
Every school that has to close because of the heat is a reminder that Maryland’s schools have been chronically underfunded, he said.
But at a press conference Tuesday, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said the lack of air conditioning is one of many ways in which local school systems are mismanaging state and local tax dollars.
“When you get hundreds of millions of dollars and you have tens of thousands of kids who can’t go to school because you don’t have air conditioning, that’s disgraceful,” Hogan said.
Hogan was not just referring to air conditioning. He pointed to high levels of mold discovered in Howard County schools a few years ago, low standardized test scores in Baltimore City in 2017, and more than five thousand students’ grades that were improperly changed at Prince George’s County Schools in 2016 and 2017.
He also cited former Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance’s recent jail time. Dance pleaded guilty in March to perjury after failing to disclose work he did for a company that won a no-bid contract with the school system.
“When you don’t have air conditioners getting fixed, when you don’t have teachers getting the raises that they deserve, when you don’t have money going into the classrooms and instead you have corruption and fraud and mismanagement and people going to jail,” he said, “we have an obligation to the taxpayers, to the local school board members and to the parents and teachers to get to the bottom of this.”
At the press conference, Hogan signed an executive order creating an Office of Education Accountability within the existing Governor’s Office for Children. It’s tasked with identifying instances of “fraud, abuse, waste and unethical conduct,” as described in the executive order, and making recommendations for addressing each.
Hogan also announced legislation, which he plans to introduce formally when the General Assembly reconvenes in January, creating a state education investigator general. The position will have the power to issue subpoenas and hold hearings.
Hogan proposed a similar measure this past legislative session that was unsuccessful.
Del. Eric Luedtke, chair of the education subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee and a former Montgomery County Public Schools teacher, said Hogan’s new office will have little effect.
“We all believe in accountability,” Luedtke said. “The issue is that he has people working for him who are responsible for already doing these things, so this is a bunch of window dressing.”
He said the lack of air conditioning in schools in particular is ultimately a funding issue — one Hogan could solve.
Funding for air conditioning repairs gets allocated with the rest of schools’ construction budgets. In 2016, Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot — who together are two-thirds of the Board of Public Works — withheld a portion of Baltimore County and Baltimore City’s school construction money until the school systems either installed air conditioning or bought window air-conditioning units as a stop-gap.
But schools’ existing construction funding doesn’t cover their needs, Luedtke said.
“The reality is those school systems are trying to keep up with massive over-enrollment in a lot of schools, with over-crowding, with antiquated buildings — so they’re trying to deal with all of these things at once,” he said.
Meanwhile, the heat index is expected to remain above 100 degrees through Thursday.
Dominique Maria Bonessi contributed reporting.