Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Opinion

Cooling classrooms should be a priority in Hillsborough district

Air conditioning in Florida is not a luxury. Can we agree on that?

In many of Hillsborough's public schools, though, it's a daily guessing game whether those heaven-sent cooling machines will work. As the Times recently reported, air-conditioning units frequently break under the strain of trying to keep large buildings from turning into saunas.

"I heard from 176 school sites that have air-conditioning issues," teachers union executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins told Times education reporter Marlene Sokol.

"Some have had almost no A.C. since the beginning of the year, some are on and off, or one wing of the building is in a bad place. I have teachers who said they had to bring a change of clothes to school because they were drenched by the middle of the day."

The temperature in buildings can spike past 80 degrees on weekends when cooling is reduced to save money, forcing chillers to work extra hard on Monday to bring the climate to an acceptable environment for learning. That's especially true when you add about 2,000 students to the mix in one of the high school buildings.

The district said this practice saves about $6 million a year in electricity, but it also makes for a crummy learning environment.

Superintendent Jeff Eakins is trying to rebuild the district's cash reserve fund, which dropped by about $200 million between 2011 and 2015 (hence, the need to save $6 million here and $6 million there).

Many schools have air units that are long past their prime, and the state, which is supposed to supply money to help fix such things, has been cutting that budget. The district needs to find the money somewhere, though, which just reinforces the increasing tension between the administration and the union that represents teachers.

Air conditioning is not the only hot-button item. There are continued problems with equipment and bus routes. There also are major budget problems. To save an estimated $404 million over the next five years, a consultant has recommended eliminating 1,761 jobs — many of which are custodial workers, secretaries, bus drivers and driver aides.

The consultant also said Hillsborough has about 1,000 more teachers than comparable districts. It also has about 100 people making more than $100,000 a year, and no one is quite sure what some of them do.

Social media's response has been to focus great attention on the renovation of board members' offices downtown. That would be proper if these offices were plush and overly pricey, but the total cost was $46,616 with another $6,190.24 for desks, according to school district figures. That's a bit less than the nearly $1 million figure being tossed around on a social media site where these issues are red meat.

For the record, social media may be the most misnamed communications platform since, well … ever. The word "social" implies polite and constructive conversation, and way too often what is tweeted or shared on sites like Facebook is anything but that.

"The office has a desk, two chairs, and a bookcase. It provides for privacy. I meet there with constituents, many of whom have serious issues like their child being bullied. I see people complaining all the time on these sites, but no one is coming up with solutions," board member Cindy Stuart said, her voice indicating extreme exasperation.

"Come ride with me for a day. See what I do. Then talk to me seriously about how we can solve of these problems. I'll listen."

I think that kind of approach is exactly what is needed. There are real problems in the district that won't be solved quickly or easily. Transportation seems to be perpetual thorn. Job cuts are always scary. I blame it on the heat. Once they get the air conditioning fixed, maybe cooler heads can prevail.

Contact Joe Henderson at [email protected]

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