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Records reveal extent of Hillsborough schools' cool air crisis

Yellow air-conditioning ducts can be seen connected to windows at Plant High School in south Tampa on Aug. 20. The school installed the ducts when the gym's air conditioning quit working, making the temperature rise to 90 degrees. [BRONTE WITTPENN | Times]
Published Sep. 1, 2018

TAMPA — The first request to fix a malfunctioning air conditioner at a Hillsborough County school came at 6:20 a.m. on the first day of classes. Benito Elementary reported on Aug. 10 that the AC units in some classrooms wouldn't turn on at all.

The very next complaints came from Chiles Elementary in New Tampa and Folsom Elementary in Thonotosassa: The AC at both schools failed.

Those were just three of the 159 schools that submitted maintenance requests on the first day of the 2018-2019 school year to fix their busted AC systems, according to Hillsborough County School District records.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Temps rising in some Hillsborough classrooms as AC units start to go down

Superintendent Jeff Eakins warned at a news conference on that first day of school that the district couldn't afford to fix every AC system. Still, he vowed that all 308 schools would have cool air when classes started.

But records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times show that didn't happen: 52 percent of the district's schools reported air conditioning problems.

The problem has only grown worse. A staggering 1,533 requests were made in the first nine days of the school year to fix air conditioners, temporary chillers, water fountains and water cooling units, according to a district spreadsheet obtained by the Times.

Records show report after report of disrupted class time, destroyed equipment, damaged classrooms and conditions that affected the well-being of students and staff alike:

• On Aug. 10, a Friday, a request from Bevis Elementary warned: "Room 235 is still reading 76 and it has been set to 72 for the student who cant regulate his body temperature."

• The following Monday, Webb Elementary staff arrived at the school Aug. 13 and smelled toxic gas leaking from the school's cafeteria and kitchen.

• Over the next two days, students and teachers at Young Elementary School and Hill Middle School went home sick after classroom temperatures topped 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

• Lomax Elementary reported on Aug. 17 that the AC unit in a classroom of fourth graders was leaking water onto exposed electrical wires.

• An Aug. 20 complaint from Chiaramonte Elementary noted that a pest control employee believed there was a rodent inside an AC unit.

Swampy conditions caused by stagnant air conditioners and poor ventilation caused mold to grow in at least 10 school buildings. The outages extended to kitchen storage rooms, where food spoiled or molded due to leaks from overhead air ducts.

Staff boiled their own water to wash dishes when water heaters went down in some school kitchens, and outages in at least 25 school infirmaries left some sick students sweltering in temperatures that reached 85 degrees.

Leaks from broken AC units led at least 11 schools to suffer severe damage, such as flooding in classrooms, cafeterias, and "technical rooms" filled with wiring and costly computer equipment.

The moisture and humidity also caused paint to peel from walls, band uniforms to turn musty from mildew, musical instruments to break and rust and caused cameras, computers and other electronics to stop functioning entirely.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hillsborough School Board to place sales tax on November ballot

The district's mounting infrastructure woes led the School Board on Aug. 24 to approve putting a 10-year, half-cent sales tax on the Nov. 6 ballot. Voters will be asked to tax themselves to raise $131 million a year to repair old schools, build new ones and upgrade technology.

Eakins had warned Aug. 10 that some schools would experience AC issues, that the district could not afford to fix every problem over the summer: "I have to speak honestly with you that there are going to be times this year where those air conditioners are going to break."

District spokeswoman Tanya Arja sent an email to the Times outlining what the district fixed this summer and what it cannot afford to fix:

"We completed full A/C replacements at 10 schools this summer. The cost to replace the HVAC at those schools this summer was $34 million. We have 40 schools that still need immediate A/C replacements and as long as we receive inadequate funding for education in Florida, we will be facing this challenge."

Still, the district received urgent maintenance requests from every one of the 10 schools that received those costly repairs: 12 were filed by Cypress Creek Elementary and 10 by Rodgers Middle.

Arja said the average cost to replace the AC system at an elementary school is $3 million, a middle school is about $5 million and it costs between $7 to $12 million to replace a high school system.

Some problems weren't just mechanical. There were air conditioners programmed to heat buildings instead of cool them, records show. Other units were never adjusted to the new bell schedule and turned off before the end of the school day.

"With the new start times for elementary, the AC is not being turned on early enough to cool the classrooms," read a request from Lowry Elementary. "We have students with special needs in 4 of these rooms who are medically fragile and heat intolerant.

"Every morning the classrooms are hot and it takes several hours for the temperature to cool off due to the AC not coming on until 7 a.m."

The district started the school year with 48 maintenance workers dedicated solely to repairing AC units. It also partnered with 17 private companies to address issues as they arise, Arja said.

The effects of these AC failures could impact the coming round of standardized testing for Hillsborough students grades six through 12.

In May, Harvard researchers studied the pre-SAT scores of 10 million students across the U.S. who had already taken the same test at least once before. The study found that, without air conditioning, every degree increase in Farenheit in school temperature reduces the amount learned that year by one percent.

In the study's conclusion, the researchers wrote: "Our estimates imply that the benefits of school air conditioning likely outweigh the costs in most of the US, particularly given future predicted climate change."

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.

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