Baltimore County School Superintendent Robert Y. Dubel calls it "marching to the beat of a different drum," but marching may be the last thing county students and teachers feel like doing when the temperature rises.
Of the six school districts in the Baltimore metropolitan area, Baltimore County is the only one that does not put central air conditioning into its new schools. Of the county's 173 elementary, middle and high schools, only 55 are fully air-conditioned -- and most of those are older schools.
"We made very conscious decision about eight years ago when we planning the construction of Hereford Middle School that [installing air conditioning] was just not cost effective," Dubel says. As a result, he says, the county's new schools are not built with central air conditioning.
"As unpleasant as it is for a few days a year, with the spiraling cost of energy we feel that money can be better spent," says Dubel.
Baltimore County has no official policy on sending students home from school early when the temperature rises. Schools have been dismissed early twice this year, both times during the unseasonably hot week at the end of last month.
Baltimore County schools without central air generally do have air-conditioned libraries, computer labs, administrative offices and health suites -- areas where employees work through the summer, Dubel says.
Officials in other counties say that new school buildings or additions are always equipped with central air conditioning when they are constructed. And some admitted to being surprised by Baltimore County's policy.
"I can't imagine building a new building and not putting in air conditioning," says Brian Lockard, assistant superintendent of instruction in Carroll County, where 13 of the county's 31 school buildings have full air conditioning.
In Anne Arundel County, 59 of the county's 120 schools are fully air-conditioned, as are 77 of Baltimore City's 173 schools and 24 of Howard County's 43 schools.
Howard County schools that do not have central air conditioning are equipped with window units, according to spokesman Pat Thomey.
Baltimore County schools with central air conditioning were generally built in the 1960s, "before the energy crisis," according to department spokesman Richard Bavaria.
A building's design often goes hand in hand with its need for central air conditioning, he adds. Windowless classrooms near the center of the building, or rooms with few windows are difficult to keep cool without air conditioning because they probably don't receive adequate air flow.
"The schools designed now are designed for efficient air flow, often around a courtyard and with many windows," he says.
Given other pressing maintenance needs, particularly in the county's oldest, pre-World War II school buildings, Bavaria says, air conditioning "would be nice, but it's a luxury that we can't afford right now."
The lack of air conditioning in most Baltimore County schools doesn't seem to concern officials -- unless the question of extending the school year is raised.
Last September, the State Board of Education voted in favor of adding 20 days to the school year as a way of improving educational achievement. The change would require approval by the General Assembly.
Dubel admits that lack of air conditioning is "a primary obstacle" in setting up a 200-day school year -- 20 days longer than the current calendar.
It would be impossible, he says, to have students in classrooms without air conditioning during the additional days, and installing cooling systems in the county's schools is "just totally impractical . . . you're talking about tens of millions of dollars."
Keith Kelley, associate superintendent for the Baltimore County Division of Physical Facilities, agrees.
For example, he said, it would cost $250,000 to $300,000 to add air conditioning to the Sparks Elementary School, while air conditioning for Hereford High School, a larger building, would cost more than $800,000.
"And these are initial costs," Kelley says. "You have to maintain them, plus pay for the energy that you use."
Despite the cost, Kelley says that his department plans to review the no-air conditioning policy with the school board sometime this summer. The threat of an extended school year, he says, makes the matter worth pursuing.
"I for one, would like to see air conditioning" in Baltimore County, Kelley says. "It's never been justified for the amount time [it nTC would be needed], but if we were to extend the school year, you could expect a lot of hot weather."