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Sunday, May 19, 2019
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Joe Henderson: School is starting, so it’s time for sweaty finger-pointing over AC woes

It happens every August.

Schools reopen in Hillsborough County, buildings fill up, and before long we start hearing about air-conditioning breakdowns and sauna-like classrooms.

Then we cut to the people in charge of the district, and they basically say they would like to solve the problem but there are too many broken cooling units and not even close to enough money to fix them.

And then they blame lawmakers in Tallahassee, who have treated public schools like a nuisance for years.

Well, here we are again and this time the district even sent out a pre-emptive strike.

As education reporter Marlene Sokol wrote in the Tampa Bay Times, the district released a list of 38 schools that need major air-conditioning work or complete replacements. The cost: a tidy $95.8 million.

Oh, and they blame the Legislature for this because of a lack of adequate funding.

Iíll promise you one thing. The problem likely is much worse than even that list lets on. This is the eighth-largest school district in the country, serving more than 200,000 students, plus teachers and administrators.

Just because a school isnít on the list doesnít mean there wonít be issues now that the new year is beginning.

School Board members had toyed with the idea of pursuing a sales-tax referendum to deal some of these issues. They say there is a $1 billion backlog of capital maintenance projects and, well, what should they do? Itís not like they can stage enough car washes and bake sales to make a dent in that.

The tax idea probably is dead, though, after the All For Transportation group had the same idea to address the countyís great needs in that area. Sensing a trend here? We have a lot of major public things to address in Hillsborough, and it might be time to rethink the whole "low tax, or no tax" image lawmakers love to project.

If we want excellent schools and a good transportation system, well, those things arenít free. And to anyone planning on responding how back in the day their classrooms werenít air-conditioned, Iíll just say this: This is 2018, not the 1960s.

Try living without cooling this time of year.

Better yet, try keeping students focused on meeting rigid state testing requirements when all they can think of is how miserable they feel. Itís not unusual for temperatures inside some classrooms to rise into the 80s.

NPR reported on a Harvard University study that showed students in rooms where the temperature was at least 80 degrees scored 13 percent lower on basic arithmetic tests and about 10 percent less in the number of correct responses per minute than those in cooler rooms.

Itís worth noting, by the way, that the cooling cost released by the district is so high because many of the schools are required to meet more rigid building code standards before the new units can be installed.

Yeah, we write this story every year because itís a problem every year.

All five Democratic candidates for governor have stressed support for public education. Mostly, they have talked about increasing pay for teachers Ė yeah, we need that too Ė but Iíd assume they would be amenable to problems like this one.

Even if there is an attitude change in Tallahassee, though, and there is no guarantee of that, it wonít help with the immediate problem.

School is starting, and classrooms will be hot.

Teachers and students will complain. Fingers, most likely dripping with sweat, will be pointed. The district will respond that it is doing the best it can with the money it has.

Tempers will be short.

Young minds will have trouble focusing.

But donít worry.

With any luck, the weather will start to cool in two or three months.


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