Here's what a public school air conditioning crisis feels like

Hot, hard facts: Hillsborough students and teachers swelter amid a swelling backlog of nonworking air conditioners.
Teachers are photographing their classroom thermostats and posting them online. This photo was posted on the Hillsborough County School Board Whistleblower Facebook page, along with others.
Teachers are photographing their classroom thermostats and posting them online. This photo was posted on the Hillsborough County School Board Whistleblower Facebook page, along with others.
Published October 6 2016
Updated October 10 2016

TAMPA — What does a public school air-conditioning crisis look like?

It's 5-year-old Adrian Kirby at Deer Park Elementary, cheeks flushed, hair matted, beads of sweat forming as he tries to concentrate on sight words.

It's his fellow kindergarteners raising their hands, because they need to go to the bathroom, because they've been guzzling water all day.

What does it smell like?

"Think about what 16-year-old boys smell like on a good day, leaving PE or weight training or whatever they have before your class," says Aubrie Orr, who teaches English at Dover's Strawberry Crest High school.

She's pregnant, first trimester, with the unfortunate gift of "super smell."

"There were a couple of students I had to walk away from because it wasn't going to end well."

The usual rules for the beginning of the year — establish a rapport, create routines, don't smile before Thanksgiving — fly out the window. "You don't want to be that ugly bad guy, yelling at them to work when they want to put their heads down," Orr says. "You know it's miserable. You don't want to be yelling when you don't want to be working yourself."

What does it feel like?

"It makes you feel sick," says Senai Nash, a senior at Blake High School.

Divya Rampargash, a Blake junior, is from Guyana, a South American country just north of the equator. "At least our schools there, they weren't sealed," she says.

It feels more uncomfortable here.

Since the start of this unseasonably hot school year — which, on top of everything else, began a good two weeks earlier than it used to — people who run the Hillsborough County school district have given varied accounts of the problem and its severity.

They waffle from "it's always a problem and we respond immediately to fix it" to "it's getting worse each year and we might have to raise taxes to get it under control."

They throw around big numbers. Thousands of machines. Hundreds of millions in deferred repair costs. Eighty new schools added in the last few decades with no additional mechanics.

But those numbers don't include the teachers buying wall units with their own money.

Teachers are bringing a change of clothes to work because they're soaking wet. They're photographing their thermostats and posting them online.

81.8.

83.

They're moving students to the media center when the classrooms are too hot, says Jordan Anderson, a sophomore at Blake.

"And when the whole second floor was bad, we went to the gym."

But at night, the gyms get hot, too.

Julia Saxton, 16, tries to ignore it as she powers through her Thursday night volleyball game at King High.

"In between points and timeout is when it really hits you," she says.

Parents sweat through their clothes, wondering if one of the players will fall ill.

"Thank God we won in four," Julia tells her mother after an especially competitive set. "Because I don't think we would have made it to a fifth."

What does a public school air-conditioning crisis sound like?

Like someone is finally listening to Chris Farkas, the district's chief operating officer, who has been warning about this for years — the futility of borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars to build 80 schools, then failing to perform the basic maintenance that the rest of us try to do in our homes. Now the technicians are so busy rebooting failed systems that there is no time for that preventative maintenance. So many new systems are needed that, even if money were unlimited, there would not be enough vendors.

The problem is widespread across the county, impacting old schools and new, suburban and urban alike. In the first six weeks of the school year, the district got 5,600 requests for air-conditioning repair, more than double the requests it got over this same period five years ago.

District leaders, eager to tout ongoing repairs, post a glowing article onto their website, subtitled "Cold Hard Facts."

But will they let a Tampa Bay Times reporter and photographer visit a hot school and witness the repairs?

A hard no. Too distracting, they say.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol

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