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How Hillsborough's school air conditioning crisis got so bad

Hillsborough County's school air conditioning crisis had its roots in the late 1990s, when the county's population was booming and the district went on a building spree. In the years that followed, the district took on added costs for other initiatives, which took much-needed money away from maintenance. [Photo illustration | jupiterimages]
Hillsborough County's school air conditioning crisis had its roots in the late 1990s, when the county's population was booming and the district went on a building spree. In the years that followed, the district took on added costs for other initiatives, which took much-needed money away from maintenance. [Photo illustration | jupiterimages]
Published Sep. 28, 2018

Jim Dieringer took a call from a Sickles High parent whose son came home sopping wet after a day in class with no air conditioning.

The school, just 21 years old, had reported dozens of cooling problems since the year began. The mom asked Dieringer, the manager of air conditioning for Hillsborough County schools, what could she do to help.

"Vote," he told her.

Hillsborough residents are being asked to approve a half-cent sales tax to support school capital projects, including more than $600 million for air conditioners that are breaking down at an alarming rate. In a frenzy of appearances before the Nov. 6 election, district leaders are making the case that the state has caused the crisis by shortchanging public schools.

But they're telling only part of the story.

While it's clear that decisions in Tallahassee have cut Hillsborough's school revenue by hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years, the record also shows that district leaders made decisions — and non-decisions — that contributed to the decline.

In its quest for better teachers, better programs and a better credit rating, the Hillsborough school system fell into a cycle of reactive maintenance and crisis management when it came to its buildings. Those priorities are borne out in budgets showing that, year in and year out, the district spends less on maintenance than other large counties in Florida.

The problem is not entirely the state's fault, deputy superintendent Chris Farkas conceded in a recent interview.

"It's not 100 percent," he said. "We made decisions."

• • •

The reports have been pouring in since the first week of school in August.

From Gorrie Elementary in Tampa:

The AC is still not working in the first grade again. It has been out several days and is really hot. PLEASE send someone out asap.

From Stowers Elementary in Lithia:

Air is not working in rooms 352 and 354. The temp is 87 degrees in each classroom. NEED TO GO BACK AND CHECK PLEASE.

From Valrico Elementary:

This is the third request to have someone come out to look at our AC for the entire upstairs and downstairs rooms in the 300 building as they have not had AC for at least three days.

Many agree the trouble began in the late 1990s, when Hillsborough's population was booming and the district went on a building spree.

In a little more than a decade, close to 70 new schools opened. Impact fees, which are paid by developers, were low in Hillsborough. So the district sold bonds to build the schools. That move saddled them with debt payments that now total about $65 million a year, and are paid out of the capital budget.

Leaders did not foresee that the recession would hit soon after the new schools opened.

The state needed money from property tax receipts. So it lowered the amount districts could use for capital costs such as construction and maintenance. This was just one of several state moves that took money out of the capital budget, and it cost Hillsborough $400 million over the decade.

But local decisions also played a role.

While other districts laid off workers to weather the recession, Hillsborough's School Board and its superintendent at the time, MaryEllen Elia, committed to keeping all teachers on the job.

"When they said, 'Hey, we're protecting the classroom,' they meant the teachers in the classroom, not necessarily the maintenance that goes with that," said Farkas, who was a high school principal at the time.

Budgets show the district typically spends between $26 million and $28 million a year on maintenance for about the past decade, despite growth in enrollment.

Compared with Pinellas, Orange, Duval, Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, Hillsborough's maintenance spending per student is almost always the lowest. Orange, which is slightly smaller than Hillsborough, spent $36.7 million in 2017-18. Pinellas, less than half the size of Hillsborough, spent $22 million.

Dividing those amounts per student, Hillsborough spent $122 while Orange spent $179 and Pinellas spent $217.

Farkas speculated that district leaders thought they could spend more when the recession ended, and did not anticipate the huge and long-lasting hit they would take in tax collections.

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They also miscalculated in 2009, when they went after a teaching reform grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates experiment, and a new teacher pay plan that coincided with it, hiked payroll by $65 million a year — closer to $100 million when benefits and performance bonuses were added.

In the end, the Gates foundation soured on the project and withheld $20 million of the $100 million it was expected to pay. The district found itself with hundreds of new teacher mentors and evaluators, an expense it had no way of sustaining.

Gates is not the only ambitious venture Hillsborough's leaders took on over the years. They expanded their offerings of magnet schools, which cost millions each year in busing alone. Under-enrolled schools remained open as thousands of students migrated to privately operated charter schools.

Eakins, when asked about these choices, argues that with population shifts, Hillsborough will need the seats in the under-enrolled schools. And he considers the Gates experiment a worthy endeavor as it helped establish high standards for teachers, even though he recognizes that it lacked an exit plan.

The district's costs had soared.

In 2015, the School Board and public learned that more than $200 million had been drained from the district's main reserve. New York firms that monitor the school system's finances for bond holders were aghast.

The district had to straighten out its finances, and a big priority was protecting the operating fund to build up the reserve.

By then, other Florida districts were raising money through local sales and real estate taxes to make up for the lost state funding. But Eakins and School Board leaders said they could not go after a tax until they proved to the public they were fiscally responsible.

• • •

Farkas, who began his career as a social studies teacher, became chief of facilities in 2014. He followed Cathy Valdes, a onetime elementary principal, and, before her, Elia, a former reading specialist.

The school bus system was in turmoil when Farkas arrived, so that became his main focus. In early 2015 the board fired Elia. More disruption followed.

By then, air conditioners at even the newest schools were showing signs of wear and possible neglect. The number of maintenance requests doubled from 2011 to 2015.

Gibson Consulting Group, an efficiency firm hired by Eakins, noted two years ago that the district spent less per square foot on maintenance than the state average, "and this gap has increased over the past five years."

Principals reported waiting a year and a half to get light bulbs changed, and 14 years to have their buildings painted.

"Due to the aging facilities and increasing backlogs of deferred maintenance," Gibson wrote, "maintenance operations operates generally in a reactive mode."

Farkas had stronger language when he addressed the board in September 2016.

By then, maintenance requests had increased even more, to 5,600 in the first six weeks of school.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Two audits seal the deal. Hillsborough will vote on sales taxes for schools, transportation.

He said the district was "in dire straits" and deferred maintenance had a snowball effect, leading to repairs that required more time and money.

At Williams Middle School, he said, the air conditioner went down right before the 2016-17 school year began. Its main motor was 22 years old.

"They don't make that motor any more," Farkas said at that 2016 board meeting. "We had to find that system in another country. When the motor came back in four days — actually five — there was no bracket that came with it. We had to hire a welder to make a bracket."

Two years later, Williams got a whole new system. Records put the cost at $7 million.

Potter Elementary, up for a $2 million overhaul in 2017, had 40 air conditioners, one in each room. "That means there's 60,000 parts that can go wrong in a Potter classroom on a daily basis," Farkas told the board in 2016, adding that other schools had systems just as bad.

He estimated at the time that 25 schools had air conditioners in "the red zone," meaning they need to be replaced immediately.

At least another 50 were "yellow," he said. "And it affects the green ones that we talked about, the maintenance. There's no preventative maintenance when every single one of our techs is trying to get the kids cool."

He made it clear that without new revenue, the system was doomed.

Board members discussed a tax referendum at that 2016 meeting, but only briefly. They quickly concluded that, with all the publicity about their budget crisis, no one would vote for it.

This year, Farkas says there are 40 schools in the red zone, and plenty of teachers and students agree.

"I'll give you a bio lesson real quick," Plant High School science teacher Kurt Thoreson said at a town hall meeting earlier this month.

"When the human body is in conditions that are not conducive for learning, they're not focused on what they're trying to learn. They're focused on how to get out of that situation."

On Sept. 12, the district got a trouble call from Sulphur Springs K-8 Community School in Tampa: "This is an emergency request, please! The A/C in Headstart room 131 is reading 86 degrees inside the classroom, these are the little kids' classroom, please send somebody asap."

• • •

Before the district could get a referendum on the ballot, it had to undergo an audit by the Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.

In its report, the office noted Hillsborough's maintenance department had 78 vacancies, "which is leading to increased deferred maintenance."

The district is trying to fill those vacancies, and outside contractors do some of the work. But competition from the private sector is a big obstacle.

In recent years, Farkas said, the district has increased blue collar wages by about 25 percent. They used to be among the lowest in the state.

Still, an engineering job that pays close to $100,000 sat vacant for more than a year.

At one point, Farkas said he pulled together an advisory panel and asked industry experts if the air conditioners had been so badly neglected that it was too late to salvage them.

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"The analogy I got was, it's kind of like smoking," he said. "Yes, if you smoke for 20 years and you stop, you still have 20 years of smoke in your lungs, they're still black. But at any point you start the maintenance, it's a positive."

Farkas is candid about the district's decision years ago to protect teaching jobs, possibly to the detriment of its physical assets.

"They weren't shy about making those choices," he said. "It sounded good at the time and I can argue both sides of that coin. If our primary job is to focus on instruction of children, and that's our primary focus, then that's it."

But, he added, "If you don't have your needs met, you never get to the instruction part. There's a need for both a conducive learning environment and great teachers."

Eakins, when questioned, did not accept the premise that his predecessors could have avoided the current rash of problems.

"Operating budgets have been tight during the recession," he said. "So I don't know if there was very much wiggle room to do much."

District spokesman Grayson Kamm also said it would be hard to fault Hillsborough leaders for their past decisions.

Look around the state, he said, referring to districts using referendum dollars to supplement what they get from the Legislature. "All the other districts are going after this money."

Even people who have been critical of the district in the past — including the teachers union, whose executive director is raising funds for the campaign — are saying, in a unified voice, that the tax must be approved.

"I live in this community," School Board member Cindy Stuart told a town hall group at Schwarzkopf Elementary that included teachers. "My children go to school in this community. I support this wholeheartedly for you and for our students.

"They deserve the best learning environment that we can give them."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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