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Heated words over cold air at Md. Board of Public Works meeting

ANNAPOLIS — A plan to speed up the installation of air conditioning in Baltimore County Public Schools drew some praise and some heated words Wednesday both during and after a meeting of the Board of Public Works.

Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot praised an announcement last week by Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to install air conditioning in all elementary and middles schools that currently lack climate control. Later, they criticized officials for the delay and said they would not release $10 million of school construction money they voted to withhold two weeks ago until they see a detailed plan. And the end of Wednesday’s meeting was punctuated by a sometimes emotional back-and-forth between a state senator and Franchot and his staff over the issue, which included references to the Freddie Gray riots.

Hogan and Franchot both took credit for the county’s change, saying it wouldn’t have happened without them pulling back state funding — a move others have criticized as politicizing what is supposed to be an apolitical process.

Hogan said the board took “decisive action to force the county to finally address the disgraceful lack of air conditioning in their schools.”

“I’m pleased as a result of our actions, all the years of incompetence excuses and procrastination, Baltimore County finally appears to take the issue of air conditioning in schools seriously,” Hogan said.

Franchot, who has championed the issue of air conditioning for the last five years, similarly claimed victory while being critical of how the issue has been handled in the county dating back to former Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith.

“Baltimore County and Baltimore city have basically dropped the ball and not done the job,” Franchot said. “So, two weeks ago we did that job and are going to do the job.”

‘Political grandstanding’

But the fracas over the county’s delayed $10 million in aid is not over. Hogan said no money would be released until the county submitted a detailed plan that could be reviewed and agreed to. A senior aid to the comptroller told Sen. Bill Ferguson after the meeting that such a plan was the start of negotiations.

Kamenetz, a Democrat who is considered to be a potential challenger to Hogan in 2018, said in a statement that the board’s actions from two weeks ago had little effect on his decision.

“We have always had a comprehensive plan in place from the beginning of our $1.3 billion Schools for our Future program,” said Kamenetz in a statement. “We’ve funded and built 15 new schools and 11 additions. That plan is near completion. We are now spending more than $166 million to forward fund the State’s share so that we can finish the job in every elementary and middle school by 2017 and every high school by 2018. We were never going to waste money on portable air conditioning units. That was simply political grandstanding and fiscally irresponsible.”

Don Mohler, a spokesman for the county executive, said the board’s decision to withhold the money was illegal, a fact he said is backed by an advisory letter from the attorney general’s office. He stopped short of saying if the county would pursue legal action to restore the funding.

“We’ve never taken anything off the table,” Mohler said.

Last week, the committee that makes recommendations on which school construction and renovation projects receive state aid voted to not get involved in deciding which county projects would be delayed as a result of the $10 million withholding. Similarly, the Interagency Committee for School Construction voted not to decide how to withhold $5 million in state aid for Baltimore city, which the governor and comptroller voted to delay because of air conditioning issues.

Barbara Hoffman, a city Democrat who serves on the commission, said last week those decisions fall outside the scope of the panel’s work. Hoffman, a former chair of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, also criticized the Board of Public Works for politicizing a process meant to be above the partisan fray.

Hogan on Wednesday directed the panel to reconsider their action.

Evoking Freddie Gray

Following the meeting Ferguson, a Democratic senator from the city, approached the governor and comptroller. Hogan left but Franchot and his staff stayed behind.

The conversation soon turned heated and emotional, with Franchot calling one of Ferguson’s comments “pathetic.” The discussion continued with Len Foxwell, the comptroller’s chief of staff, after Franchot left.

Ferguson said the board’s decision to withhold money set a precedent that would lead to the end of local control over school construction issues.

“This is how you make an enemy of an ally,” Ferguson said, adding that city schools have other needs, including issues with lead pipes that leave drinking water contaminated and unusable.

Ferguson asked why air conditioning is more important than those issues and said the political flap interrupts an established, long-term systemic plan for improving conditions at city schools.

Foxwell called the characterization a “false choice” but Ferguson would not be swayed, saying the city has been the subject of neglect and racially divisive policies for five decades, culminating in the riots following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody last year.

Foxwell asked Ferguson if he was now blaming the comptroller for the riots.

“People yet again see politics as interrupting real change and have a right to be angry,” Ferguson said in an interview a few hours after the meeting. “It’s this systemic approach to short-term, headline grabbing politics that led to the conditions in Baltimore of severe inequity. We need long term solutions, not quick hit, temporary press opportunities.”

But Ferguson also held out hope of finding common ground.

“We’re both trying to solve a problem but we disagree about the mechanism,” Ferguson said. “Hopefully that will change.”