Hundreds of students returned to school Thursday in hot classrooms, as a plethora of problems plagued air-conditioning units at schools across TUSD.
Classrooms of students at five Tucson Unified schools were shifted to unused rooms such as libraries and computer labs after classroom air conditioners broke down and temperatures rose above 78 degrees, the hottest allowed by district policy.
The district had to supply another seven schools with temporary portable air-conditioning units and swamp coolers for individual classrooms, as temperatures reached a muggy 102 degrees outside.
Each school had only one classroom without air conditioning, the district said. However, Tolson Elementary had a schoolwide failure before air conditioning was restored by 9:30 a.m.
That’s on top of several other schools that are undergoing scheduled fixes for air-conditioning units that weren’t completed by the start of the school year, forcing the district to utilize cooling processes involving running cold water through the buildings’ pipes or parking portable air-conditioning trucks outside that blow cool air through the existing ventilation system.
Schools with classrooms where students were relocated include Pistor Middle School, Maldonado Elementary, Ochoa Community School, Robins K-8 School, and Valencia Middle School.
Schools where portable air conditioning and swamp coolers were used include Cragin Elementary, Davis Bilingual Elementary Magnet, Grijalva Elementary, Miles Exploratory Learning Center, Dietz K-8, Sewell Elementary, and Bonillas Elementary. Cholla High School didn’t lose cooling, but had an air-conditioning truck hooked into its ventilation system.
At a hastily organized news conference Thursday, TUSD’s interim operations officer John Muir couldn’t say how many students, exactly, were forced to share another classroom or utilize other air-conditioned space, or were forced to use portable cooling systems. Nor could the district say how hot classrooms became, other than that if they reached above 78 degrees, a temporary solution was put in place.
There is also no indication of when the 12 affected schools would have their air-conditioning systems repaired.
“I can’t give you a timeline. The units are down. It varies on what broke,” Muir said.
He noted that in many cases, the HVAC units are decades old and have been repeatedly repaired. Parts for old air conditioners can be hard to come by, and the district is often forced to rely on used parts from scrapped air-conditioning systems.
And Muir warned with the poor state of air-conditioning systems districtwide, Thursday’s outages likely won’t be the last.
“I hate to say it, but I’m probably going to be back up to this podium saying Safford (K-8 school) is going to fail tomorrow. … We’re headed for imminent failure for a lot of these,” he said.
Muir added that TUSD needs a new funding source to get its schools up to a “minimum standard” noting state funding for capital projects has been slashed over the past decade.
“This isn’t just TUSD; this is a statewide problem,” he said.
Muir said that compared to past years, Thursday’s problems were minimal, the district responded quickly to any hot classrooms, and instruction was not seriously interrupted.
He noted that Wednesday’s storms and Thursday’s muggy weather contributed to the breakdowns.
The TUSD Governing Board this year decided to spend about $4 million of new “district additional assistance” funding, typically used for capital repairs, to provide support staff with raises after Gov. Doug Ducey’s teacher pay increase plan didn’t include funding for raises for staff other than classroom teachers.
At the time, TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo warned that spending every penny on raises left the district vulnerable without funding for repairs.
“I want to be very clear with the community: This leaves us with absolutely a zero balance to handle anything with deferred maintenance,” he said.