Broken air conditioner makes it hard to be cool at Wharton High School

American government is best served cold. Feel the biting wind off the Delaware River.

Now imagine being a teacher and sweating so profusely you can't grade papers.

It gets that bad at Wharton High School, said teacher Leo Haggerty. "There's some days where you have to change your lesson plans because the paper becomes so moist that the kids can't write on it," he said.

Temperatures get into the 80s, he said, owing to a faulty air conditioner in his wing of the building. Others confirmed the system sometimes shuts down or blows hot air. From February on, they brace for some miserable afternoons.

So Haggerty, also a leader in the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, spread the idea of a "Flip Flop Friday" on May 13. The normally corporate-looking faculty would arrive that day in shorts, sandals and garments suitable for spring break.

History teacher Chad Reed was all for the idea. "If anything, it's a silent protest," said Reed, who finds that his students become lethargic in the afternoon heat. "It's not conducive to teaching."

But they wondered: In this era of teacher insecurity, would their coworkers be so bold? Or would they worry about getting on the wrong side of their principal and losing out on performance pay?

"With the way the law is written, you can fire people without cause," said Haggerty. "So you've got to be a little bit concerned about what you do and how you do things."

• • •

They say it isn't bad in the morning and, indeed, it was quite temperate at 8:17 a.m. In the front office, a secretary was remarking — yes, she was — on the weekend forecast, which promised perfect beach weather.

Across a counter piled high with trophies, another secretary asked whether I was expected. I was. Leo Haggerty had invited me to visit his class.

Nothing doing, said principal Bradley Woods. "He's on school time. You'll have to make an appointment with him on his time."

Woods was gracious enough to answer questions about the air conditioning and the fear of consequences for the dress-down day.

"Just like any large facility, this one has major systems that sometimes break down. When that happens, we report it to the maintenance department and they respond. I can tell you that yesterday at 5:15 p.m., we had a contractor here."

He didn't know whether it had been messed up for five years, as he has been here only three. He didn't believe that section of the school was better or worse than any other at Wharton. As for the district, he said, "I don't think anyone is dragging their feet or dropping the ball."

At downtown headquarters, spokesman Stephen Hegarty said the district gets all kinds of complaints about air conditioning and heating systems. "You should spend some time in this building," he said. "We have people working on things all the time. They fix one and move on to the next."

Back to Woods, and the issue of retaliation concerns: "People have a right to their opinion," he said. But he expects his faculty to dress professionally and never in a way that would detract from instruction. "If someone came in wearing a grass skirt, I'd have an issue," he said.

As to why I couldn't visit Haggerty, Woods acknowledged it might be different if I wanted to observe his teaching methods. But "he's not authorized to speak on this topic. He is not an air conditioning repairman."

• • •

Our original source for the story was Emmy Boyd, an aspiring journalist who is graduating this year and is an editor at our tb-two* publication for high school students.

She was at school that day, camera in hand and looking for teachers in resort wear. Only one — Reed — looked truly beachy. No one, it seemed, wanted to embarrass Woods or bring dishonor to the school. And there were discussions about whether the students should be leaking information to the media.

She doesn't get it.

"It's not like we're saying anything is wrong with the school, or the principal," she said. "Something is wrong with the air conditioning, and something needs to be done with it. But it's not a scandal."

Ah, Emmy. You have so much to learn.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@sptimes.com.

Broken air conditioner makes it hard to be cool at Wharton High School 05/19/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 19, 2011 5:30am]

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