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WJZ Investigates: Fixing Baltimore's Cold Schools

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Aaron Maybin never expected his 45-second video would go viral.

The former NFL linebacker was teaching art at Matthew Henson Elementary School in West Baltimore -- the same school Freddie Gray once attended -- and saw his young students shivering in their coats with the temperature hovering near 40 degrees in the classroom. He recorded their reactions.

That video catapulted the problem of broken heating systems in Baltimore City Public Schools into the national spotlight at the start of the new year.

"It made me furious, and I'm upset with anyone who isn't just as furious seeing that video," Maybin told WJZ investigative reporter Mike Hellgren.

"Everybody from the teachers to the parents themselves have been raising their voice on these issues for a long time now," he said. "Why does it take a former NFL player saying the exact same thing to actually warrant our policymakers doing their jobs?"

Maybin, who has strong ties to West Baltimore, said it's unconscionable that the children did not have working heat.

"That was the rest of our day. It was my students shivering in their seats. It was us having to get them up and moving just to keep their blood flowing. It was us finding creative ways to lessen their suffering," he explains. "Heat is one of the basic necessities of a decent education, and we're not providing it. Yet we're expecting these kids to turn out normal. We can't do that. That's criminal on our part."

Later that week -- as heating problems grew in the bitter cold -- every Baltimore public school was forced to shut down. Last week, City Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises got bombarded with comments and questions by angry parents at a school board meeting. She said she understands their frustration.

"Absolutely, accountability needs to come with that. I've owned it. I've owned it with principals," Santelises said.

RELATED: Parents On Hand As Baltimore City Public School Board Holds Meeting On Maintenance Issues

Santelises promises children will never be left shivering in the cold again.

"One, we now have a protocol, and we are clearly communicating that to school leaders about what acceptable temperatures will be," she told Hellgren. "We are working right now to make sure we have equipment in place that will give accurate temperature readings for classrooms in schools that will enable us to close schools when conditions are, frankly, beyond what young people should be in. What I cannot promise again is that we will not have boilers breaking."

She added: "These systems were beyond repair. They were outdated, and we were exposed to this kind of mass failure."

Santelises maintains her school system is underfunded.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has alleged repeatedly that money was mismanaged and misspent, and he says Baltimore receives the fourth highest per-pupil funding of any school system in the nation.

Santelises flatly denies mismanagement claims.

"We have the records around our spending. We are undergoing more state audits at any time -- I would argue -- more than any other jurisdiction in this state," she said.

Hellgren asked her about $66 million the school system gave back because projects did not meet deadlines and budgets.

"To set the record straight, that $66 million dollars is not money that we gave back," Santelises said. "It is money that had we been funded on time for instead of having to wait two or three years for a project to be funded, would be new dollars that we would have received."

RELATED: Gov. Hogan: 'Highly Funded' Baltimore City School System To Blame For Cold Classrooms

"It was our team who found that we were owed $66 million...we bring that to light then we turn around and we get beat up for it," Santelises said. "That is money that we discovered and we presented -- that we believe is new money that is owed to the system."

Gov. Hogan's spokeswoman, Shareese DeLeaver-Churchill, called that "misleading," and said the money is still there for use in Baltimore's public schools.

DeLeaver-Churchill released the following statement to WJZ:

"The state does not owe Baltimore City Schools $66 million. The fact is Baltimore City Schools reverted $66 million in school funding – money which is still earmarked for the City.  Since 2011, Baltimore City Public Schools have rescinded 55 projects, including HVAC, roofs, fire safety, doors, windows, and elevators. When a project is rescinded for Baltimore City Schools, or any other school system, the funds go into a statewide contingency account. Baltimore City can receive that funding for current or future projects by requesting the funds through the Interagency Committee on School Construction with approval by the Board of Public Works."

In no school have students missed more time due to heating problems than Calverton Elementary-Middle, a 1962 building also located in West Baltimore. The school's 647 students only attended class one day in the first two weeks of 2018.

WJZ was allowed inside where contractors were at work fixing hundreds of leaks in the hot-water-based heating system, having to repeatedly drain and restart it. The pipes line walls and the water inside froze, causing them to burst. The building is slated for replacement.

"You can ask the parents at Calverton. They want their kids back in school in an environment that allows them to develop their talents. They do not want to worry about just whether it's cold or not," Santelises said.

She called for more investment in education.

"Long term, I still believe it is a societal question about whether we value our children and other people's children," Santelises said.

Since his video gained nationwide attention, Maybin has continued to collect donations of hats, coats, even space heaters for children across Baltimore. An online campaign has raised more than $80,000.

But he says city and state leaders have to step up.

"There's no way the powers that be didn't know about this. Nobody wants the receipt for this on their administration because what we're talking about is hundreds of millions -- possibly billions of dollars in investments -- just to get our buildings functional where they're safe for our kids," Maybin said.

"Something terrible is going to happen in one of these buildings one day." he told Hellgren. "An American tragedy will one day happen in these crumbling buildings if we don't address the issue. How long are we going to allow the policymakers just to pass the buck to the next administration? We need to keep the pressure on. Let's actually get out here and put some action behind these words. Our kids need it."

See WJZ's full coverage of cold conditions in Baltimore City Public Schools here.

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(© Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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