Hillsborough fights the AC fire with Cold Hard Facts
Battling a barrage of criticism on social media and in the news, the Hillsborough County School District issued its own report Friday on the state of air conditioning repair in the district.
Titled, "HCPS Air Conditioning the Cold Hard Facts," the Newsdesk article took the reader to Blake High School, where air conditioning specialists Chris McLaughlin and Michael Pratt were adjusting the school's chiller units.
Readers tell the Tampa Bay Times that Blake has been especially hot this year. The Newsdesk article showcased the district's response.
"Eighty percent of the time we are able to repair an issue on the first service call," McLaughlin told the writer.
The article includes facts and figures such as these:
* The district operates more than 5,500 Freon-based air conditioners and 205 cold-water chillers.
* A standard elementary school requires about as much AC as a small subdivision with 40 separate homes.
* The district spends about $4.7 million a year for parts, filters, contracted vendor costs and chiller rentals.
* Fuel costs last year, including AC, exceeded $34 million.
* Some of the air conditioners are so old, they were in use when the children's parents attended the schools.
* Teachers sometimes inadvertently make matters worse by placing furniture too close to the thermostat, generating heat and causing the AC unit to run overtime and break down.
* As with the transportation department, it's hard to find qualified mechanics who will work for the wages that the district can afford. Right now there are 18 vacancies.
"Cold Hard Facts" followed two weeks of public criticism of the condition of the cooling system in Hillsborough's more than 250 schools.
It began when the Whistleblower, a Facebook website that has arisen as a catalog of complaints about the school system, posted a report about roughly $1 million in renovations and relocations to the district's Student Nutrition, Human Resources and Communications departments. Commenters, including teachers, noted that these upgrades -- which also include new School Board member offices -- are happening in a year of stifling heat in many of the schools. One comment led to another, with the teachers from different schools comparing notes. The Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, which is in the midst of bargaining for higher pay, posted its own Facebook survey about air conditioning and reported that it heard complaints from teachers at 176 schools.
Reports followed in the Tampa Bay Times and on WTSP-News 10. Facilities chief Chris Farkas said on camera that there has been a spike in complaints this year, but the district does not have enough money in its capital budget to replace the aging systems.
In response to questions, the district has told the Times that:
* Fuel costs dropped by more than $6 million between 2014-15 and 2015-16 because of a concerted effort to conserve energy.
* The district does not shut the systems down completely at night and on weekends, but sets timers that raise the thermostats and, in some cases, cycles them off and on.
* The district takes the necessary steps to test for and prevent mold, including the use of dehumidifiers.