Editorial: Turn the heat up on AC problem in Hillsborough schools

Superintendent Jeff Eakins and the current Hillsborough County School Board did not create this air conditioning mess, but they own it now. Times
Superintendent Jeff Eakins and the current Hillsborough County School Board did not create this air conditioning mess, but they own it now.Times
Published August 23 2017

Hillsborough County School District students do not want to hear that their buildings are decrepit. They do not want to hear that Florida's legislators are complicit. All they want to hear is the sweet sound of a classroom air conditioner kicking in at full power. Anything less creates uncomfortably hot classrooms and difficult learning environments, and there needs to be a greater sense of urgency to correct this untenable situation.

This AC crisis has gone on long enough in Hillsborough schools. This isn't just a 2017 failure. There were multiple problems at Hillsborough schools a year ago, and the problem has only worsened since then. District maintenance workers are fielding 200 requests a day for faulty air conditioning systems, and $90,000 a month is being wasted on portable chillers.

Superintendent Jeff Eakins and the current Hillsborough School Board did not create this mess, but they own it now. And no amount of rationalizing about the Great Recession, the loss of state money or the age of certain schools can change the fact that they did not react forcefully enough to keep students and teachers reasonably comfortable.

So here's the deal:

It's time for a little sweat equity in Hillsborough's administrative suites. From the superintendent's office on down, how about turning off the air conditioning in solidarity with sweltering teachers and students? Would that solve the problem? No. But at least it would be an acknowledgement that this situation is intolerable and that officials are taking it seriously. Because right now, the optics are not good.

It is certainly true that Florida's Legislature bears some responsibility. There was a time, in the early 2000s, when the state's Public Education Capital Outlay fund was providing more than $20 million a year for building costs in Hillsborough County. Since 2011, the county has averaged less than $3 million annually from this fund. That works out to about $120 million less money, and that would fix or replace an awful lot of AC units.

Nor has it helped that legislators have been siphoning off capital and maintenance funds to charter schools. They also ignored a Senate bill earlier this year that would have allowed districts to raise money by bringing property tax rates for school construction and maintenance back to pre-recession levels.

But the fault does not lie solely in Tallahassee. A lot of the construction and maintenance money disappeared when the economy tanked, and Hillsborough officials did not plan accordingly. The district has added new schools, taken on a lot of debt and lacked the foresight to expand its maintenance department or create a better plan to hire outside AC contractors.

At some point, this became a management problem. Maybe that was before Eakins took over. Maybe that was before some School Board members were elected. But the stories of classes taking refuge in media centers and teachers changing out of sweaty clothes were being told last year. Hillsborough is spending less money per student on plant maintenance per student than any other district in the state. And it's had seven years to get used to the idea of school construction and maintenance money drying up. Not everything can be blamed on unforeseen circumstances.

The bottom line is this situation is inexcusable. A state as hot as Florida, a county as large as Hillsborough, and a nation as proud as the United States should not have schoolchildren struggling to maintain their focus because the temperature in the classroom borders on unbearable. The time has come to fix this. The time has come to turn the heat up on Hillsborough school officials. Tap deeper into reserves, hire more outside AC contractors — or turn off the AC in your own office.