Baltimore Education Coalition Spokeswoman Tenne Thrower speaks to supporters and protesters about needed City Schools’ building improvements. (Photo by Bebe Verdery)

As the post-Memorial Day heat swelled in the city this week, Baltimore Education Coalition’s member groups rallied and marched to the State Office Building to persuade the Maryland Board of Public Works to rescind a requirement for Baltimore Public Schools to install air-conditioning units in 2000 classrooms by the start of the 2016-2017 academic year.

In May, the three-member Board consisting of Gov. Larry Hogan, State Treasurer Nancy Kopp, and Comptroller, Peter Franchot, voted 2-1 to reduce Baltimore City Schools’ already approved $27.5 million FY 2017 Capital Improvement Program (CIP) request by five million dollars if the school system does not install unit air conditioners in classrooms by August of this year. State Treasurer Nancy Kopp objected to the vote calling it “political theatre.” David Lever, executive director of the Maryland Public School Construction Program resigned in the aftermath of the air-conditioning decision. Level said that the Board of Public Works had no role in intervening in the request for construction funds by a local jurisdiction.

“They are giving us an option that doesn’t make sense and it’s backing us into a corner. Where are we going to get the money from? We’ve already had budget cuts with teachers and staff? Instead of us being able to spend the money on what’s needed and intended, they are withholding the money for no reason” said Tenne Thrower, community school coordinator of Barclay Elementary and a leader with the Baltimore Education Coalition.

More than 85% of Baltimore City Public School buildings are in poor condition according to a report conducted for the School System by Jacobs Engineering Group.  Baltimore School Coalition leaders stated that the older schools required to install the window unit air conditioners are the schools that have multiple problems such as leaky roofs, inadequate electrical systems, malfunctioning fire alarm systems and unreliable heating systems.

Baltimore Education Coalition organizers and supporters from the American Civil Liberties said the air conditioning unit issue diverts funds and attention from systemic improvements in Baltimore City Public School buildings and is a political ploy that hurts Baltimore’s children. Last Fall Governor Hogan and Franchot sought to pressure Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to install window air conditioning units in older county schools, using a portion of the county’s $27 million fund collected for school improvements.  Baltimore Education Coalition supporters believe the request for window units in Baltimore City’s older schools is an extension of the demand placed on Baltimore County.

In a May 16 letter to the Board of Works, acting Baltimore City School’s Chief Tammy L. Turner wrote that Baltimore Schools do not have the surplus to make the request for window air conditioning a reality. “Our estimate of the cost to install air conditioning units in 2000 classrooms is $27 million. The district does not have additional resources to fund such an aggressive program.” Turner also addressed electrical upgrades, ventilation and other issues that would support installation of window units that make the requested project impossible to achieve between now and the start of the 2016-2017 school year.

Students who participated in the rally wanted air conditioning in their buildings, but appealed for a more balanced approach to upgrades that wouldn’t take building improvements away from them later.  “I’m here today to request that Governor Larry Hogan give us the $5 million that would be held back instead of the unit air conditioners and not hold the money and us hostage,” said eighth grader Lakara Hebron of Hamstead Hill Academy.  Lakrara was one of a group of 20 children from Hamstead Hill who accompanied their principal, Matthew Hornbeck on the march from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor School to the State Office Building.

Gerrell Bratcher, one of the dozens of newly laid off employees from Baltimore City Schools expressed disappointment that no representative from City Hall or the Public School System came to hear their concerns. “No one was here representing the City or at least saying to us, ‘We hear you’ or ‘We’re going to call a special session to discuss this.’ Folks are hearing us but no one’s listening. Listening requires a response,” Bratcher said.

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) passed legislation in the General Assembly session that recently ended that would nullify decisions by the Board of Public Works made after Jan. 1 on school construction funding policy.

Thrower and Frank Patinella, co-leaders of the Baltimore Education Coalition rally, indicated that most members of the Baltimore General Assembly’s delegation were squarely behind their efforts. Yet,  so far, it looks like the Maryland Board of Works and Baltimore City Public Schools are both waiting to see who will make the first move.