B y H a n n a h G l a s s t o n
DURING THE FIRST six weeks of school this year, 60 kids at Tully Elementary Accelerated Magnet School went home with heat-related illnesses that had nothing to do with being outside during recess.
The heat came from inside their classrooms, due to a lousy evaporative-cooling system which covers the primary wing of the westside school. The system hasn't worked properly since it was installed during a renovation four years ago. Parents and teachers, who saw agitated, red-faced kids trying to make it through the first grueling weeks of school, decided it was time to make some changes.
So the site-based, predominantly minority school, with 60 percent of its cooling coming from an evaporative system, asked for help. In a quick fix, the school district shored up falling coolers, balancing them on wooden towers outside buildings in an admittedly non-city-code manner. Then they offered to come up with money to repair the old system.
But the site-based committee, tired of sweating out the years at Tully, decided to meet with Bob O'Toole, the man in charge of operational support services for the Tucson Unified School District, and ask for air conditioning, like all the high schools and 25 of the 71 elementary schools in the district have.
Last month O'Toole met with parents, teachers and Principal Andy Diaz, and slogged through several overhead transparencies, hitting on all the fine points of budgeting and revenue limits.
O'Toole was blunt: "We have eight million square feet of buildings (in the district), and one mechanical person for every 100,000 square feet of space, all working under an incredibly backlogged system." He told the committee he could probably tap the district's emergency fund and come up with the estimated $30,000 dollars needed for cooler repair.
But the Tully contingent, which arrived with a letter saying they wanted air, not repair, was adamant. One teacher, turned off by the this-is-all-we-can-offer attitude, said, "Since we're a site-based management school, we thought we should have more rein as far as decision making goes." O'Toole, apparently tired of site-based schools thinking they have power, snapped, "Site-based decision making is for decisions in your framework. Maintenance is my budget."
"Besides," O'Toole remarked, taking the you're-not-the-only-ones approach, "40 schools in the district with evaporative cooling are all complaining." True enough. The Tucson Education Association has filed many heating and cooling grievances on behalf of district schools.
Somehow, that did not make anyone in the room feel better. They asked if they could have their share of the emergency money now and work to raise the rest. If they get the $84,000 in magnet money they have yet to receive this year, could they use part of that? Does next year look any better? Two years?
No, no, no and no, came the rapid-fire answers.
To drive the budgetary word home, O'Toole got blunter. He has $70 million in repairs that need to be done in the district and $2 million to do them with, most of which is going to fix the antiquated air-conditioning system at Santa Rita High School.
"I have science labs that need to be repaired, carpets that are worn out, lights that don't work, roofs that are leaking, potholes in parking lots. Your conversion (from evaporative cooling to air conditioning) goes on my $70 million list. The question is how you can get around that, and I don't know how. I don't have any money, and I don't know where I'm going to get it."
To which he added magnanimously, "There isn't anybody who doesn't think every school should be air-conditioned."
This, of course, raises a question: Why does TUSD continue to build and renovate elementary and middle schools with evaporative systems? Doolen Middle School was the unhappy recipient of a so-called state-of-the-art, non-working evaporative system installed during a recent multi-million dollar renovation, paid for with bond money.
The estimate to install air at Tully is $150,000. And though the committee continued to press him for more creative answers to fund that system, O'Toole warned them if they don't jump on the repair money now, there are no guarantees it won't be spent on something else tomorrow.
As an example of where emergency funding goes, he pointed to the new alternative learning lab recently installed in Tucson Magnet High School for "disruptive students" following a melee at the central city school. Asked why $44,000 went toward that project as opposed to sweltering schools, O'Toole simply said he takes his orders "from the superintendent."
The only words of advice O'Toole offered for what has become an untenable situation at too many schools were: "bond election." But realistically, he added, it would be two years before a bond election could be completed, and then two more years to get the air in.
Translation: It'll be a cold August day in Tucson when dangerously overheated schoolchildren in TUSD get a break.
Hannah Glasston is the parent of a Tully Elementary School student.
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