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

BRONTE WITTPENN | Times Air-conditioning ducts were connected to windows in an effort to cool the gym at Tampa\u2019s Plant High School.
Published Aug. 24, 2018

TAMPA — When Plant High School opened its doors after summer break, teachers discovered mold in the auditorium, soggy posters falling off walls and copiers that struggled to come back to life after sitting in high humidity for two months.

It wasn't a surprise. Hillsborough schools superintendent Jeff Eakins had warned teachers and parents the district could only afford to fix or replace air conditioners at 10 schools this summer, leaving 38 in need of major repairs. But he promised all 308 schools in the county would have cool air when classes began Aug. 10.

Two weeks later, social media sites are flush with photographs of thermostats showing temperatures of 87 and 88 degrees in classrooms at a number of Hillsborough schools — new and old, high-achieving and under-performing, affluent and low-income.

Christine Brady Corum saw so many posts about sweaty students on the Fishhawk Area Neighborhood Facebook page that she began purchasing box fans for Randall Elementary School and launched a community-wide fundraiser. Broken air conditioners fueled an attack ad last week from state Senate hopeful Janet Cruz, who stood outside Coleman Middle School to accuse opponent Dana Young of voting for legislation that has cut $1.3 billion to public schools.

Making the problem worse: Heightened security measures means teachers can no longer open windows or doors to air out sauna-like classrooms.

Bo Puckett, a social studies teacher and football coach at Plant High School, posted a photo to Facebook of tentacle-like air ducts hanging from the windows of the school's basketball gym. Maintenance staff were able to remove mold from the school before students returned, but administrators say there isn't enough money to replace the school's broken air conditioners. Instead, Puckett said, staff are trying to rebuild existing units.

"Gonna take months to do that so in the meantime they've raised the windows on the side of the building and installed 10 huge pieces of plywood with a big hole in the middle,'' Puckett wrote. "They're going to run air ducts to those holes and run it down to the side of the building where those 10 ducts will have cold air pumped to it from a running truck. This every time they want to use the gym. I kid you not.''

District spokeswoman Tanya Arja said there have been no school-wide outages so far, but maintenance staff have had to repair AC units in individual classrooms and buildings at a number of schools. The district could not provide a list of those schools Thursday.

The breakdowns were expected. Eakins said at a back-to-school news conference that fixing every problematic unit would cost an estimated $340 million — money he said the state is unwilling to provide.

"I have to be honest with you,'' he said two weeks ago. "There are going to be times this year when those air conditioners are going to break."

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends temperatures in the workplace stay between 68 and 76 degrees with humidity in the range of 20 to 60 percent.

The school district has 218,000 students and more than 25,000 employees, but OSHA only allows investigators to intervene in a workplace if the temperature prevents workers from performing their job duties or maintaining a safe body temperature.

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

Still, she cautioned, "as long as we receive inadequate funding for education in Florida, we will be facing this challenge."

State law is vague when it comes to enforcing specific temperatures in classrooms. But guidelines listed in the State Requirements for Educational Facilities regulations say school ventilation systems must maintain temperatures of at least 78 degrees in the summer and 68 degrees in the winter.

Officials said all units in the district are set to 76 degrees during work hours and are programmed to run at 80 degrees at night and on weekends.

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

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