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Some California Schools Skimped On Air Conditioning For Years. This Heat Wave Is Just The Beginning Of Their Problems

A man in a bright neon yellow safety vest stands on top of a ladder near the ceiling of a hallway while holding a large air filter, perhaps 2 feet long by 2-and-a-half feet wide.
An L.A. Unified School District facilities worker installs a MERV-13 air filter during an event at Panorama High School demonstrating pandemic upgrades to the district's heating, cooling and ventilation systems on March 10, 2021.
(Kyle Stokes
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Inside the school kitchen at Russell Elementary in South Los Angeles, it’s not unusual — even at 6:30 in the morning — for the air temperature to approach 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Some California Schools Skimped On Air Conditioning For Years. This Heat Wave Is Just The Beginning Of Their Problems

And that’s when there’s not a heat wave outside.

With excessive heat warnings in effect to begin September, Reseda Charter High’s kitchen topped 95 degrees before 10 a.m. At Strathern Elementary, 115 degrees. Gompers Middle, 117 degrees. North Hollywood High, 121.7 degrees.

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Los Angeles Unified School District policy calls for air conditioning in every classroom, but not in every building on campus — so in more than half (455) of the district’s kitchens, workers have to do without.

“Do we have to have them pass out with heatstroke before we do anything?” said Adriana Salazar Avila from Teamsters Local 572, the union for LAUSD’s food service managers. She’s collected at least two-dozen reports of high kitchen temperatures from her members.

What Are HVAC Conditions In Los Angeles Unified?

With California’s climate warming — and amid a global pandemic of an airborne pathogen — the current heat wave is only the latest event to highlight a generational problem facing many California schools: fixing inadequate heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

A thermometer held up in front of the camera with several large industrial appliances, perhaps ovens, in the background. The thermometer reads 117.8.
A representative for Teamsters Local 572, which represents roughly 800 LAUSD food service managers, shared this image taken in the kitchen at Gompers Middle School, suggesting the indoor air temperature was more than 117 degrees.
(Courtesy of Adriana Salazar Avila)

By LAUSD’s own standards, the HVAC system on 599 of the district’s 676 campuses is “at the end of its life or beyond. It is operating but regularly fails and requires repairs to continue working.” Statewide school HVAC data is difficult to find, but engineer Theresa Pistochini believes LAUSD is far from the only district with aging systems.

“The biggest issue is [HVAC] has been chronically under-prioritized and underfunded,” said Pistochini, the co-director of engineering at the Western Cooling Efficiency Center at UC Davis.

To pay for industry-standard levels of upkeep, one group of experts recently estimated that the U.S. should spend $195 billion every year on school facilities. Instead, schools spend just $110 billion — a shortfall that leads to compounding problems as deferred maintenance piles up.

Low-income districts struggle to generate much revenue from voter-approved construction bonds. This, experts say, forces districts to dip into operating budgets — normally used to pay teacher salaries and buy instructional materials — to cover routine repairs.

“Depending on where you live, and depending on what the appetite is for school bonds and extra funding, there’s a real disparity for school facility funding,” Pistochini said. “And there’s been this chronic underinvestment in school facilities. Without those resources, you can’t keep those facilities functioning as they should be.”

“The good news is we’re starting to see more money coming from more places,” she added, pointing to new state initiatives like CalSHAPE, which provides up to $600 million for school HVAC upgrades, adjustment and testing. “Maybe the tide is turning on this. My fear is we’ll lose interest before the problem is solved.”

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How LA Schools Are Responding To The Heat Wave

LAUSD’s facilities division is currently in “emergency mode,” said chief facilities executive Mark Hovatter. On Wednesday, his division was handling more than 2,900 calls for air conditioning service affecting around 1,900 classrooms — about 6% of the district. Students and teachers from 39 classrooms were temporarily displaced to a cooler location on their campus.

The district has deployed more than 900 portable air conditioning units to classrooms — as well as heavier-duty units to provide short-term relief in the most sweltering, un-cooled kitchens, Hovatter said.

Over the long term, LAUSD has committed to spending millions on more-permanent upgrades for its kitchens and cafeterias, including the installation of A/C systems.

“But that doesn’t do anything for them today,” said Hovatter, who’s been in constant contact with Salazar Avila about kitchen conditions. “Today it’s 108 degrees, so today we need to come up with some temporary fixes.”

The Role Of Climate Change

While the strain of the current heat wave will fade, a warming climate will likely increase the urgency for repairs to school HVAC systems.

For decades, the Oxnard Union High School District relied on geography to keep cool. The school system serves coastal Ventura County from Point Mugu to Oxnard — an area where, for years, sea breezes have helped moderate temperatures. The district’s oldest high schools were built without air conditioning.

In 2018, Oxnard Union voters approved a $350 million school facilities bond, with the district promising to spend nearly half of the total package to install HVAC at each of the district’s schools.

We can’t just ask the kids to grin and bear it when the temperatures in the classrooms are unbearable to them.
— Tom McCoy, superintendent, Oxnard Union High School District

By that point, hot weather was forcing Superintendent Tom McCoy to either close schools or send students home for half-days between 6 and 10 days each year.

Oxnard Union’s bond needed 55% of the vote to pass. It got 56.4%.

“No one was more surprised than me that we had to have HVAC in our schools,” said McCoy, who's been an administrator with the district for 15 years and its superintendent for the last three years. “We can’t just ask the kids to grin and bear it when the temperatures in the classrooms are unbearable to them.”

Oxnard Union isn’t the only California school district that has put air conditioning on the ballot.

Long Beach Unified spokesperson Evelyn Somoza noted voters in that district passed the $1.5 billion Measure E in 2016, which has funded installations “at the 54 campuses where central air conditioning was outdated or nonexistent,” among other upgrades.

Schools Could Have Used Pandemic Money For HVAC — Did They?

The federal government’s aid package for schools known as ESSER III allowed schools to spend pandemic relief dollars on indoor air quality — including improvements as drastic as an installation or replacement of an HVAC system.

However, many districts spent these ESSER III funds on direct pandemic responses — such as updating ventilation systems to blow in outside air constantly — rather than on installing new HVAC systems, which is a much bigger-ticket expense.

In Long Beach, Somoza said that a portion of the district’s relief funds were used to purchase air purifiers and filters "that ensure air quality in every LBUSD classroom.”

McCoy said Oxnard Union was able to use some of its ESSER III dollars on air conditioning.

The district had planned to use voter-approved bond funds to purchase a new HVAC system at Hueneme High School, which would’ve made the project ineligible for stimulus funding. But because the project at the school hadn’t started yet — bids were still pending — the district was able to use a healthy portion of its pandemic relief money to cover the project’s $18 million cost.

McCoy said the district’s $350 million in bond funds don’t come close to covering all of Oxnard Union’s facilities needs — so the maneuver will help the district complete other projects.

“California’s model is that the districts need to create through general obligation bonds their own facilities funding,” McCoy said. The system works, “but you can’t go out very often … You have to really not go out all the time asking for another general obligation bond.”

The courtyard of Simon Rodia High School, an L.A. Unified School District continuation school in South Gate.
The courtyard of Simon Rodia High School, an L.A. Unified School District continuation school in South Gate.
(Kyle Stokes

How LAUSD Hopes To Solve Its A/C Problems

LAUSD’s Mark Hovatter is a straight-talking, no-nonsense official who loves school ribbon-cuttings as much as he hates making excuses.

He also said it’s inescapable that LAUSD is still digging out from a repair backlog that began during the Great Recession. From 2008 to 2015, LAUSD’s budget for routine maintenance was slashed by 50% — and there’s a direct link between work the district put off then, and HVAC systems that are sputtering today, Hovatter said.

“We call it the dark years,” Hovatter said during a presentation this week. “There were a lot of things that should’ve been done that would’ve preserved the life of our systems — like air conditioning — and make them last longer, but we just weren’t able to do those.”

“I hate to make excuses, but that’s a reality.”

Critics say LAUSD could have embraced other solutions to help keep students cool.

“The district has rejected parents’ pleas for even temporary shade from the sun, and instead advised students to find refuge in air-conditioned classrooms — despite a backlog of hundreds of failing A/C units,” said Arelia Valdivia, executive director of Reclaim our Schools L.A., an advocacy group allied with the district’s teachers union.

Long-term solutions are in the works. LAUSD has 28 new HVAC projects in the design and construction phase. Those projects are estimated to cost $327 million. Another $300 million in funding remains for additional projects.

Hovatter’s long-term goal is to replace 5% of the district’s heating and cooling systems each year. But achieving that objective would require LAUSD to spend $780 million annually — comparable to sums the district has spent over the last decade on HVAC.

Hovatter isn’t just commenting on the situation from a comfortable, air-conditioned perch at LAUSD’s downtown headquarters. His daughter’s fourth grade class was temporarily relocated during the heat wave. She’s now back in the room — with two portable A/C units pumping in cooler air.

But it turned out solving the cooling problem created another.

Hovatter said the district is now considering bringing in generators to run the portable A/C units. Doing so requires a considerable amount of electricity — which he found out on back-to-school night as his daughter’s teacher was projecting a slideshow in the front of the classroom. The projector was plugged into the same circuit as the two portable A/C units, whirring in the background.

Suddenly, the projectors went dark. The A/C units had tripped the circuit breakers.

“Everyone in the room knew I was the facilities director,” he said. “I was temporarily the center of attention.”

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Kyle Stokes reports on the public education system — and the societal forces, parental choices and political decisions that determine which students get access to a “good” school (and how we define a “good school”).