Parents in the Towson area are hot under the collar after Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. decided yesterday that $12 million that had been budgeted for the expansion of Loch Raven High School will instead go toward other projects after the county school board unanimously voted to rescind its approval of the proposed addition (as reported in my story today).
Some have questioned why the money wouldn't instead be put toward adding air condition to the many schools that lack it. On Monday, Baltimore County closed all its schools three hours early because of the heat. While other counties closed a school here or there, Baltimore County closed all its schools because so many --- about half of them --- lack air conditioning that it made little sense to keep any of them open.
One community activist, Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, whose son attends Ridgely Middle School (which recently completed a $13 million renovation, but still lacks air conditioning), drove home this point in a WBAL radio interview this week:
"They need just $900,000 to add air conditioning," she said. "They now have windows that don't open at all or that open only six inches. The temperatures are 10 degrees hotter than it is outside."
On Smith's role, she added that his decision to put the $12 million into other projects without seeing whether the school board might support adding air conditioning to some of these school, "creates resentment."
"There's a feeling he is not thinking about the people in these schools, about the students and the teachers that are suffering much more with the lack of air conditioning, which is a health issue as well as an education issue, rather than repaving parking lots, loading dock replacements and footbridge replacements," Taylor-Mitchell said on the WBAL radio show.
In an interview yesterday, Smith said he is directing the $12 million toward these "site improvement" projects because the school board wants them done. He said the projects, part of a list that totals $20 million, were requested early in the budget process and only $2 million was able to be allocated for them. Scrapping the Loch Raven addition frees up that money, he said.
I have a call into the school system officials to find out if it would have been an option for the school board --- had they been consulted yesterday before Smith's decision --- to suggest using that freed up $12 million toward air conditioning projects in the coming year. Are there logistical or technical constraints? Is it as simple as, If only he had first asked the board what they wanted to do with the "found" money?
I'll update this post later with whatever response the school system is able to offer.
5:56 pm. Thursday --- I just finished talking to Kara Calder, spokeswoman for the school system. She confirmed that, to her knowledge, the county executive did not contact school system officials before announcing his decision yesterday.
As for whether the money could've instead been targeted at adding air condition to schools, Calder explained that before any changes (such as adding projects not previously equested) could be made to the school system's capital improvements program list of projects for the fiscal year that starts July 1, all parties --- meaning the school board, county executive and county council --- would have to agree.
About the projects that Smith has recommended, Calder said, "The site improvements are much-needed projects. Some have been carried over for two or three years. There are definitely some significant needs there."