ANNAPOLIS — Less than a year after the Board of Public Works deferred millions in school renovation funds in a spat over classroom air conditioning in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, those two jurisdictions got word that they can have at least some of it back.
Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot, who voted together last May to withhold $5 million from the city and $10 million from the county, softened their positions Wednesday morning at the annual round of school construction funding appeals known to insiders as “beg-a-thon.” The votes were representative of a more easy-going meeting this year that nonetheless was marked terse comments from the governor directed at Howard County Public Schools.
Both officials agreed to release the full $5 million to the city and half of the county’s deferred money. The votes were rewards for what both characterized as attempts by each jurisdiction to resolve a six-year dispute about the lack of climate-controlled classrooms; both jurisdictions are home to the oldest school facilities in Maryland.
Hogan called for the release of the deferred money, saying “the city has really taken seriously the advice from the Board of Public Works and made a real effort to try to correct and address” the air conditioning issue.
And while Baltimore City Schools Chief Executive Officer Sonja Santelises presented a four-year plan that was acceptable to Hogan and Franchot, the deal comes with an unusual trade-off.
Santelises told the board that the plan to install portable room air conditioners in affected schools would cause a deferral of what she called “fire safety maintenance” needs. She did not elaborate on which schools would be affected or what fire safety needs would be delayed.
In the case of Baltimore County, the three-person board, which also includes Treasurer Nancy Kopp, unanimously voted to restore $5 million of the deferred funding.
Hogan and Franchot asked Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance to explore ways to speed up his plan to air condition classrooms and hinted that the remaining $5 million in deferred funding could be released in May when the board meets next on school funding requests.
“This is a motion I am delighted to join you on,” Kopp said. “I think it was a mistake to hold it up in the first place, with the understanding that we’re getting progress as long as we’re not going to be ignoring fire safety. I find it difficult to believe that it’s legal to say, ‘We’re going to not do fire safety correction, we’re going to do something else instead.'”
Santelises said her comments were made in the interest of transparency “that there are fire safety projects that we would have been able to do sooner that we’ve put off but I would never stand for keeping school students in unsafe conditions, but it does mean there will be a deferral.”
Santelises added that if any of the projects needed to be done immediately “we’d take the necessary action.”
The board’s decision met with the approval of Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who did not attend the meeting.
“We are pleased that the Board of Public Works today recognized the incredible success of Baltimore County’s Schools for our Future program that has been in place since 2011,” Kamenetz, a Democrat who is presumed to be a challenger to Hogan in 2018, said in a statement. “We are constructing 15 new schools, 11 additions, eight major renovations, and have reduced the number of schools (needing) central air conditioning from 90 to just 13 this fall. No other county in the history of this state has ever undertaken such a comprehensive school construction program in such a short period of time.”
The 2017 version of the annual meeting was a more genial event than last year, when the governor and comptroller ruffled some feathers in direct, sometimes confrontational exchanges with officials of several school systems over air conditioning and school maintenance conditions.
The exchanges led the Public Schools Superintendents Association of Maryland to write the legislature complaining about the process. The legislature responded by attempting to eliminate the appeals meeting.
Hogan earlier this month said the meetings would go on as planned and schools systems that refused to come to the board meeting risked losing their funding for school construction and renovation projects.
Howard County, which was the focus of one of those exchanges last year over concerns about mold in some schools, was once again the focus. Howard County Schools Superintendent Renee A. Foose told the board that there was no problem. Others, including members of the school board that is being sued by Foose, disputed those claims.
Hogan threatened to bring in an independent group to get to the bottom of the issue and said the board — primarily himself and Franchot — might consider withholding school construction and renovation funding.
“We have ways of making sure they pay attention,” Hogan said of the school system. “We got Baltimore City and Baltimore County to address the concerns we had.”
In another exchange, Hogan and Franchot noted that neither the superintendent of Prince George’s County schools nor County Executive Rushern Baker and members of the County Council attended the meeting.
“The next time they ask for $90 million they might want to come and address us personally,” Hogan said.
Del. Marc Korman, responding to a reporter on Twitter, noted that Baker was in the Appropriations Committee fighting for the funding for the Prince George’s County Regional Medical Center.
Franchot noted the difference in tone between this year and last year during an exchange with the Frederick County Schools Superintendent Theresa R. Alban, who wrote the 2016 letter to the legislature as president of the superintendents’ association.
“The people who were complaining were all the people who fixed the problems we asked them to fix,” said Hogan.