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Hogan, Franchot hold back school construction funds

ANNAPOLIS — A divided Board of Public Works Wednesday voted to withhold $15 million in state school construction and renovation aid from Baltimore County and Baltimore City.

The vote by Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot over the objections of Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp was driven by continuing frustrations over lack of air conditioning in schools in those jurisdictions. The board also voted by the same 2-to-1 margin to approve a controversial rule change for the board allowing it to authorize the use of state funds for portable air conditioning units — a change the state attorney general said runs afoul of the law.

The actions were met with criticism from some lawmakers, and the Baltimore County executive hinted at potential legal action.

Hogan and Franchot said the money, $10 million for Baltimore County — about one-third of the amount it was expecting from the state — and $5 million for Baltimore City, would remain “fenced off” until both jurisdictions presented a plan to address the lack of air conditioning in schools. Such a plan is to include a short-term solution of using portable units as each jurisdiction moves to install central air conditioning as part of ongoing renovations.

“I think it’s a shame that we have to continue to have these discussions about air conditioning and mold problems in our schools,” Hogan said, referring to issues in Baltimore City and Baltimore and Howard Counties. “We solved the air conditioning problem in every jurisdiction in the state except for two.”

Hogan blamed the lack of air conditioning in Baltimore County on “petty politics, poor management and indifference.”

The vote to withhold money came more than hour after the board voted 2-1 to approve a rule change that allows the panel to use state money for portable air conditioning units.

An advisory letter from the attorney general said the proposed change would not be legally enforceable because it was circumventing a process for establishing such changes and urged the board to wait until July 1. Hogan and Franchot, pressed on, citing armed  an advisory letter from the attorney representing the board. The governor and comptroller said that the rule change was legal because it contained contingency language that would not take effect until that date.

During the meeting, the board also directed the Interagency Committee on School Construction to review maintenance issues in the Howard County Public Schools after a number of parent and teach complaints were received about mold issues.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Democrat and potential challenger to Hogan in 2018, said his county would continue to move ahead with construction and renovation plans but stopped short of saying how it would fill the $10 million shortfall. Kamenetz hinted at potential legal action.

“We’ll let that play out. I think the attorney general’s opinion was strong,” Kamenetz said. “I think the path is clear here. I think we’re on solid ground here with solid facts and a good solid (school renovation) plan.”

Kamenetz said the decision was ironic because it withholds money intended to fund projects that would provide central air conditioning to nearly a dozen county schools.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch decried the board’s decision to withhold school construction money as politically motivated.

“The only people you hurt here are school kids from Baltimore City and Baltimore County,” Busch said. “It’s a childish act in my estimation and opinion. Baltimore City and Baltimore County certainly had plans to air condition all their schools. I just think it’s an unfortunate action taken by the Board of Public Works by two of the members of the Board of Public Works to withhold this money from the school children of Baltimore City and Baltimore County.”

Busch added: “I think if Baltimore County and Baltimore City were Republican jurisdictions this wouldn’t take place.”

Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent S. Dallas Dance attended the meeting, along with a lobbyist representing Baltimore County government, but he was not allowed to speak.

Kopp, speaking to Dance, apologized for the slight, to which Hogan replied, “There’s nothing to apologize for.”

The county lobbyist could be heard replying to Hogan, “That’s nasty.”

Dance, DallasDance, speaking to reporters after the board vote, called the decision to withhold the money “disappointing.”

“I am concerned right now,” Dance said, noting that the expected funding was already part of his proposed capital budget for the coming year. “We’ll have to go back to our school board and county executive and figure out how to fund projects we’ve already committed to our community and promised we would do.”

Dance said he is “three years out from a long-term solution for every school in out county.” The superintendent said officials are at the design phase for “every single school except for about 13 for air conditioning projects. Again, $10 million from classrooms is going to hurt.”

But that three-year plan did not impress Franchot or Hogan.

Franchot called the county plan “an act of fiction, fantasy and a fairy tale.”

Dance was less specific when asked if he would attempt to return to the board with a new plan that would meet the requirements outlined by Hogan and Franchot.

“I’m going to do everything in my power to advocate for every dollar for my school system,” Dance said.

Kopp expressed concern about the board’s actions, suggesting they were potentially illegal and could have repercussions for state bonds. She called on the legislatively appointed 28-member 21st Century School Facilities Commission to review the board’s actions and make recommendations to the legislature.

“Governor, the politics of fear and demagoguery, I fear, has come to Annapolis,” Kopp said.

The treasurer said the votes amounted to Hogan and Franchot using the board to cram down political decisions to the local level.

“It may be good theater, but it’s a very bad mistake,” Kopp said.