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Union talks heat up over widespread air conditioning problems in Hillsborough schools

TAMPA — Austerity measures in the Hillsborough County school system saved an estimated $6 million in energy costs in the last school year.

But nothing is free, and the district's frugality could be contributing to steamy conditions in dozens of schools.

The Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, now bargaining for nearly 20,000 employees, polled its members after seeing complaints about hot schools on social media sites.

"I heard from 176 school sites that have air conditioning issues," said union executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins. "Some have had almost no A.C. since the beginning of the year, some are on and off, or one wing of the building is in a bad place."

"I have teachers who said they had to bring a change of clothes to school because they were drenched by the middle of the day."

T.G. Taylor, the district's chief of community relations, said a variety of factors are likely affecting the temperature levels. Some problems originate with Tampa Electric, and some are caused by power outages and lightning strikes. "There are some schools that have chronic issues, some issues that crop up sometimes," he said.

And classes resumed earlier this year than they used to, on Aug. 10.

Maintenance workers respond promptly, Taylor said, but some repairs take time. One school needed a part for its system that was available only in a foreign country. When it arrived, he said, it did not fit the bracket at the school.

While acknowledging school officials are making a concerted effort not to waste power, Taylor said it would be impossible to estimate how much of a factor those efforts are. "There's a lot of headaches when you have 200-some sites to take care of," he said.

Teachers and students can experience medical problems too.

Richard Mobley, a social studies teacher at Newsome High School, told the Tampa Bay Times in an email that his school has had air conditioning problems for years, and he believes the root cause is a deliberate effort to hold down costs.

"Due to lack of air circulation in my building last year, I experienced more allergy symptoms than I ever have and went to my allergy doctor," he wrote. "She told me that she has many school system employees coming to her office with the same complaints and symptoms."

Discussions about air conditioning have taken place during two recent bargaining sessions between the union and district leaders, most recently on Wednesday. The two sides have been trading offers and counteroffers since May.

This time, district officials offered cost-of-living raises of $200 to all teachers. Baxter-Jenkins said that offer was insulting, amounting to about $1 a day at a time when jobs are being trimmed and workers who remain could face increased duties.

About 50 clerical workers in three central offices were told last week that their jobs have been eliminated, and they are to look for other positions in the district. Alberto Vazquez, the district's chief of staff, confirmed that Hillsborough leaders are trying to phase out about 120 such jobs, through volunteer transfers as much as possible.

Vazquez has spent the last year trying to stabilize the district's main reserve account, which dropped by more than $200 million between 2011 and 2015. Through a combination of cutting costs and charging expenses to outside accounts, he stopped the balance from dipping any lower.

But some of the adjustments were one-time events, and Vazquez said the district needs to save another $130 million in the current school year. Custodians and teachers, especially those who are not in classrooms, can expect to see a thinning in their ranks.

Baxter-Jenkins warned that, between hot conditions and the loss of coworkers, teachers' morale will suffer. She suggested the district sweeten the deal by giving teachers several $200 and $250 payments throughout the year. There was no immediate response when talks ended for the day.

Stephanie Woodford, the district's chief human resource officer, pointed out that the system will not see immediate savings from the job cuts. She noted that those who transfer to lower-paying jobs will get to keep their current pay for a year. "And we're trying to do a lot through attrition," she said. "A lot of these savings won't be realized for some time."

She also said teachers should not be insulted by the $200 offer. Combined with other benefits, the overall package is worth $39 million. That includes the $4,000 raises that roughly one-third of teachers will get by advancing a year in their pay schedule. It also includes $5 million in raises for support employees such as teachers' aides, whose hourly wages will increase by 6 percent if the deal is ratified.

In addition, Woodford said, the district is providing $100 million in free health insurance to its employees. "That's an awful lot of zeroes," she said.

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

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