Monday, September 24, 2018
Education

Hillsborough leaders ask for patience as multiple schools still suffer from broken air conditioners

TAMPA — Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins and his facilities chief appealed to parents Wednesday to be patient as the district works through chronic air conditioning problems — and to advocate for more state funding.

In a news conference that was equal parts apology and explanation, Eakins said the air systems are working at the majority of Hillsborough's 230 schools, with between 15 and 20 considered "high priority" at any one time.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Here's what a public school air conditioning crisis feels like

The school system gets more than 200 repair calls a day, said Chris Farkas, the district's chief operating officer.

Farkas said his staff could not confirm reports that temperatures have climbed as high as 100 degrees in some schools. When air conditioners malfunction, they said, the temperatures typically are in the mid-80s, about 10 degrees higher than the optimal 76 degrees.

"It's a huge concern," said Eakins, when asked if he considered the air conditioning situation a crisis. "It's a concern for our families and a concern for our employees and a concern for our students."

In some cases, Farkas said, students have gone home because of the heat and their absences have been excused. In many cases, teachers will take their classes out of hot rooms and into cooler areas of a school, such as the media center.

The district's crew of 33 maintenance technicians aims to resolve problems within 24 to 48 hours, although sometimes they need to order a part they do not have in stock, or call in a vendor to do a repair under warranty. Spot coolers and rental chiller plants are used on an interim basis when the repairs take longer.

"Our crews are out working nonstop, and they're doing a fantastic job," Eakins said.

In outlining the problems, Farkas and Eakins described a perfect storm of events.

Twenty years ago, during an economic boom, the district went on a building spree that produced 70 new schools. Then the recession hit and money dried up.

The district is still paying mortgages on the newer schools, an expense that eats up half its capital budget. And the air conditioners have aged to the point where they often break down.

The size of the maintenance staff is about the same as it was before the building boom, but Farkas said the answer is not as simple as hiring more technicians. Air conditioner mechanics are in great demand, commercial work is highly specialized, and the private sector offers higher pay, he said.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hot schools, heavy traffic and businesses caught in the middle

Eakins urged voters to advocate for a better system of state funding, which in recent years has favored privately managed charter schools, meaning less for government run schools.

One source of maintenance funding, the Public Education Capital Outlay program, known as PECO, has dropped dramatically in recent years. Hillsborough received $164 million from the program from 2002 to 2009, but took in $19 million over the last seven years, Eakins said.

State law also limits the amount of maintenance money that can come from property taxes. The cap on that tax rate is $1.50 for every $1,000 of assessed value.

"We have pushed the state for greater funding in these areas," Eakins said.

Yet district administrators and School Board members have taken a wait-and-see posture in the statewide movement to challenge House Bill 7069, this year's sweeping set of school-related laws that included some funding issues. And Hillsborough leaders have not pursued another option that has been successful in other counties: asking the voters to approve a sales tax for schools.

Eakins said Wednesday, as he has in the past, that he wants to get Hillsborough's finances on a more solid footing and gain the public's trust before asking residents to pay higher taxes.

"We're getting into a more confident space," he said. "We're just not completely there yet."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 810-5068 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol

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