Hogan, Franchot protest legislature’s ban

on state money for portable AC units in schools

Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot were fuming Wednesday that the General Assembly has barred school systems from spending state tax money on portable air conditioners.

The General Assembly also put an end to the annual “beg-a-thon,” in which local school superintendents appear before the Board of Public Works to ask for more construction money.

Hogan said the provisions were major reasons he decided not to sign the capital budget bill, where lawmakers made both changes. The bill will become law without his signature.

“It’s one of the most absurd and ridiculous things I’ve ever seen the legislature do,” Hogan said.

Franchot complained that neither measure was aired in hearings during the legislature’s 90-day session and weren’t in earlier versions of the bill. He suggested that the move was made secretly and was a shot at him and Hogan.

“I think it’s a bizarre use of the conference committee,” Franchot said. “I don’t know who put that language in. Nobody’s raised their hand and said, ‘I did it.'”

Del. Adrienne Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the House capital budget subcommittee, said lawmakers felt that Baltimore City and Baltimore County were making sufficient progress on adding central air conditioning, so it wasn’t necessary to spend state tax dollars on portable units that won’t last.

“It’s nothing political. We’re looking at being the best stewards of public money,” Jones said.

Jones rejected any suggestion that the decision was made in secret. “These are open meetings. … Doors are open, anyone can come,” said Jones, who led the House negotiators.

While conference committee meetings are open to the public, it can be difficult to determine when and where they will be held. Neither Jones nor Sen. James E. “Ed” DeGrange Sr., her Senate counterpart, knew where the language they adopted originated.

For several years, Franchot has pressed local school systems — particularly those in Baltimore city and county — to speed the installation of air conditioning in public school classrooms.

Hogan has joined the comptroller in pushing for the installation of portable window units as a quicker solution.

But the school systems in the city and county have preferred to spend their money on central air conditioning.

While that takes more time and money to install, school officials contend it is a better use of taxpayers’ dollars in the long term.

Franchot said the legislature’s action does a disservice to Maryland families.

“What about the 40,000 children in Baltimore City and Baltimore County who sit in sweltering hotboxes without air conditioning?” he said.

The Board of Public Works did not require money be spent on portable air conditioners but voted in January to scrap a policy that prevented state money from being spent on portable units in classrooms. The legislature’s budget provision undoes that action.

Baltimore County did not plan to use state money for portable air-conditioning units, even after the policy was changed, said Ellen Kobler, a spokeswoman for County ExecutiveKevin Kamenetz.

The best way to remedy hot classrooms is to install central air conditioning during major renovation projects, Kobler said. The county aims to have central air conditioning in all schools by 2019.

At the beginning of the school year, 48 schools in Baltimore County did not have air conditioning.

Baltimore City school officials did not respond to a request for comment. The city school system has been studying the feasibility of installing portable air conditioners, which officials have estimated would cost about $17 million.

DeGrange, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, noted that jurisdictions are free to use their own money to buy window units if they choose — as his county has done.

Franchot and Hogan also objected to a provision that says local school officials can’t appeal decisions from the Interagency Committee on School Construction to the Board of Public Works on how to allocate state construction money.

The appeal process has been dubbed the “beg-a-thon” because it usually involves a full day in January when local school superintendents and other officials go before the three board members to implore them to fund their projects.

Last month, the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland wrote a letter to House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller calling the process “unnecessary and redundant.”

“Our experience has been that the members of the BPW often do not question the construction projects but use the time as a forum to advance political agendas such as financial literacy, declining enrollment, communications to parents, post-Labor Day starts, charter school approvals, and other instructional or operational issues,” the letter said.

The superintendents specifically excluded Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp — but not Franchot or Hogan — from their criticism. Kopp, they said, asks “appropriate questions.”

Franchot said the superintendents object to the “transparency and accountability” of the process. He said members would still be able to quiz superintendents when they appear before the board on other school-related items.

DeGrange said the beg-a-thon was an “outdated” event. “It was just a ridiculous process,” he said.

Via mdresser@baltsun.com and pwood@baltsun.com >>>Baltimore sun 

MarylandMap2

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