This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Classroom temperatures keep climbing up into the 90s, schools are closing early because of the heat, and teachers and parents are joining the growing chorus calling for the Philadelphia School District to air-condition every school. At the moment, only a minority of District schools have air conditioning.
The brick and stone buildings are good at soaking up the sun, turning classrooms into saunas and forcing administrators to shuffle students around into the few air-conditioned rooms at some schools – such as the library or main office — just to keep them from suffering health effects from the heat.
At the school board’s Finance & Facilities Committee meeting last week, several parents demanded that the District air-condition all buildings, pointing out that air conditioning has become the norm in affluent suburban districts.
The Philly Healthy Schools Coalition, made up of parents, unions, and nonprofits, will be organizing around the issue in the coming year. They see it as an issue of equity, but also see a need to educate parents about what they could have if they stood up and fought for it.
“It’s hard for parents because the conditions have been this way for a long time,” said Robin Roberts, director of Parents United and part of the coalition, about the lack of air conditioning, in addition to the broader list of environmental concerns such as lead, mold, and asbestos. “Parents don’t necessarily see how it should be. They’ve never gone to schools in Lower Merion to see how it is there.”
City Council member Helen Gym has called on the District to air-condition every school, but at the facilities committee meeting, the issue was largely dismissed as too expensive. Instead, the District said they are focusing on replacing the malfunctioning HVAC systems in schools where they are causing mold, as was done over the summer at Muñoz-Marin and J.B. Kelley Elementary Schools.
The District estimates that it would cost $6.6 million to buy room air conditioners for every school, but also that it would also have to spend $137 million upgrading the electrical capacity at more than 100 schools that don’t have air conditioning. Although the District is preparing to issue $275 million in bonds for infrastructure projects, much, if not all, of that money is already allotted.
Gym agrees that the District may not be able to afford to air-condition all schools immediately, but argues that it can be done gradually over the next several years.
“It’s a huge investment, but it’s all about priorities,” Gym said. “We could have a five- or six-year plan to get all of our buildings air-conditioned. We’re spending countless amounts on high-stakes testing, privatization, and principal training that don’t have a lot of proven value. But we’re spending tens of millions a year on that kind of stuff.”
“We sacrificed 10 days of school at the beginning of this school year and will again on other days throughout the year because of the lack of air conditioning,” Gym said. “Air conditioning is directly related to our ability to maintain a normal calendar year and ensure our kids have the same learning opportunities as children at wealthier districts have. The year has started with our kids already behind wealthier school districts. That is further proof that it’s not an even playing field.”
Gym was clear that the primary responsibility falls on state government, which defunded the PlanCon program that reimbursed school districts for major construction projects. Although she wants the public to fight for a return to that program, she also doesn’t want its absence to lead to inaction at the local level.
“I don’t think the District has to do it all by themselves,” Gym said. “Everyone should kick in, including the state and PECO. … We are trying to change the position that we’re in, not explain it away and rationalize it.”
Jerry Roseman, the environmental scientist for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers who works with the Philly Healthy Schools Coalition, testified at the first meeting of the Finance & Facilities Committee last week. He said that, if done right, air conditioning a building costs money initially but also helps save money by stabilizing the indoor humidity — avoiding problems like mold and peeling lead paint that have plagued the District in recent years.
But Roseman also pointed out that many of those problems can also be caused by air-conditioning systems that have not been properly maintained, such as those that had to be replaced last summer. He noted that there are many other malfunctioning HVAC systems throughout the District and applauded the District for committing to replace them.
Laurie Mazer, a parent with the coalition, noted how common that problem is in the District when she testified before the school board committee.
“We have a leaky roof,” she said. “All that lead remediation is amazing, but the roof leaks, so the paint will peel, and we will have to do it all over again.”
Roseman’s argument about air-conditioning systems is similar: installing the right system could eliminate mold in the building, but the cheapest solutions can lead to more problems.
He gave the example of Delaplaine McDaniel Elementary School, where the air conditioning was installed just 15 years ago. It has been malfunctioning for years, he said, and is still a problem.
“You shouldn’t have the types of failures at Lincoln, Lawton, Overbrook Education Center, McDaniel, Munoz-Marin and many others because these systems are under 30 years old – they’re not deteriorating or broken,” Roseman said. “They need to be properly managed and maintained, otherwise these problems will just continue.”
Roseman said this problem stems from a lack of proper training for the building engineers and from a lack of engineers, whose numbers have been in decline and are well below the national standard. Without proper maintenance, thermostat failures and leaks become common, which leads to water accumulating in the building, causing mold to grow and damaging floors and ceilings.
He also said that some systems are superior to others and worries that rushing the project might lead to the installation of the relatively cheap classroom unit ventilators that are currently common in schools that “fail catastrophically and routinely.”
“If somebody does not realistically enforce oversight, management, control, and operation – if there’s not more planning and accountability for this – it will look just like McDaniel and Lawton,” Roseman said. “The solutions exist, but there needs to be a different kind of discussion.”
The lack of building engineers and cleaning staff is something that Gym’s office has been lobbying the District to address. And the District has been hiring, but still has more positions to fill.
“We’re going to have ongoing conversations, including with our unions, and I’d like to hear more from principals and others about some of the problems,” Gym said. “We also know that since the District enforced give-backs in the union contracts, the pay is far too low within the School District, and we need to figure out how to get it to a sustainable level in order for those positions to be filled.”
“Give-backs” refers to benefits previously won by a union that were given up as part of a contract negotiation.
The salary for building engineers in the District is 33 percent lower than the national average, according to Indeed, based on an average salary of $37,725 for the District’s building engineers.
Roseman said hiring new staff must be coupled with comprehensive training on the heating and cooling systems in their buildings. Although he and the coalition have been included in the District’s lead stabilization project, they’ve been less successful in getting a response on air conditioning issues.
“Both on behalf of the PFT and also through the Healthy Schools Coalition, I have reached out to the District on multiple occasions over an extended period of time to try and create a more coordinated and comprehensive approach to these issues,” Roseman said. “The District has not yet collaborated with us at that level.”
“They respond to us mostly when there are catastrophic emergencies like what happened at Muñoz-Marin and J.B. Kelley. At that point, the District will engage with us around what needs to be done.”