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  1. Education

With classes set to start, Hillsborough unsure if school air conditioning systems will hold up

VALRICO — After spending $34 million to repair or replace 10 air conditioning systems this summer, Hillsborough County School District leaders are crossing their fingers, hoping the systems at dozens of others will work when more than 200,000 students return to school on Friday.

As of Monday morning, every school in the district had a working air conditioner, superintendent Jeff Eakins said at his annual back-to-school news conference. But he acknowledged that nearly 40 more schools are still in need of major repairs or replacement systems — and he blamed state officials' penny pinching for the problem.

"We're just not getting the funding to make that happen," he said. "In some cases, we've had to make some tough choices between classroom needs or air conditioning. We're making the repairs, doing what we can. But I have to be honest with you. There are going to be times this year when those air conditioners are going to break."

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Florida's education funding continually ranks near the bottom compared to other states, Eakins said Monday, citing a recent Education Week report that gave Florida an "F" in school spending.

Replacing an entire air conditioning system costs an estimated $3 million for an elementary school, $5 million for a middle school and between $7 million and $12 million for a high school, according to school district records. To reduce wear and tear on school units, thermostats are always set to 76 degrees during school hours, and automatically run at 80 degrees outside normal business hours.

The district on Monday released a list of 38 schools in need of "immediate air conditioning overhauls or replacements" through 2021. The estimated total needed to complete those projects: more than $340 million.

Republican lawmakers who control the state budgeting process have repeatedly said that the funding they approved this year for public schools is more than adequate.

Meanwhile, Eakins used his nearly 40-minute speech to highlight new cost savings and accomplishments for the school district, including increased high school graduation rates, stronger school security efforts and expanded preschool programs meant to prepare more children for kindergarten.

"We know that the product we are producing every single year is second to none," he said.

Eakins spoke of small fixes that should help tackle the larger problems within the school district.

Starting Friday, the district will launch a new bell schedule aimed at getting more buses to the schools on time.

The high school day will begin later than it used to, typically at 8:30 a.m. Elementary schools will begin at 7:40 a.m. Middle schools will see the least amount of change, typically running from 9:25 a.m. to 4:20 p.m.

Some schedules are different, especially those at magnet schools, and details are available on the school district website.

District staff also made some small changes to school lighting over the summer, replacing thousands of bulbs with energy-efficient LED lights, Eakins said. The new lighting is already saving money, he said. The low-powered lights, he said, also will emit less heat, helping to keep classrooms cool if an aging air conditioning unit can't keep up.

And even though school air conditioners are working now, Eakins assured that district staff will retest every unit before students return Friday morning. The National Weather Service forecast calls for a high of 91 degrees that day.

The 10 schools that received air conditioning upgrades this summer are Booker T. Washington, Crestwood, Edison, Gorrie, Morgan Woods, Wilson, Roosevelt and Cypress Creek elementary schools and Rodgers and Williams middle schools.

Hillsborough County Council PTA President Damaris Allen said she's been impressed by the way district staffers have worked around inevitable power outages or broken air conditioners in recent months.

Her two children lived through an air conditioning outage at Coleman Middle School last year, she said. The staff there kept parents continuously updated and made sure each student drank multiple bottles of water throughout the day, she said.

"I know all of our schools struggle to have the things they need, and parents have become used to filling in the gaps, but now I think more of us are realizing that there's nothing the school district can do to make up that funding on its own," Allen said, echoing Eakins' point about the state education budget.

"Really the bottom line is we need to advocate for a tax referendum to fix the current deficit and continue to lobby our legislators to give our students the funding they need," she said.

In broad numbers, the district is on the hook for about $3 billion including mortgages on schools that were built in the boom years between the late 1990s and 2006, deferred maintenance including the air conditioning systems, and the need to build more schools for a growing population in the southern part of the county.

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More than 1,900 jobs have been phased out and Eakins said that for the first year since he began his job in 2015, he will bring forth "truly a balanced budget."

While acknowledging the need for a tax referendum to raise more money locally for the schools, Eakins defended the decision to wait before pursuing one, even as other districts mounted their campaigns.

"I think we're on the right timeline, because you have to be able to go out to the community with clear evidence that you have done everything you can do," he said.

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

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