It has been a week since school started and Polk County Public Schools officials continue to work on the air-conditioning outages throughout the county.
PCPS spokesman Kyle Kennedy said since Aug. 1 — three days before teachers returned and 10 days before students started — the PCPS maintenance department has received 755 work orders for A/C issues. More than 600 of those have been closed out.
Kennedy said approximately 5% of the orders were duplicates and nearly half were submitted for rooms that had working A/C.
“But in the extreme heat we’ve been experiencing, A/C systems can struggle to cool rooms more than 15-20 degrees,” Kennedy said. “We’ve been experiencing some of the hottest temperatures in recorded history. This has created a surge in the number of A/C issues that we typically experience this time of year.”
Polk Education Association President Stephanie Yocum, whose union represents 9,000 teachers, paraeducators and staff, said there are still 60 schools that are having issues with air-conditioning. The PEA filed a grievance against the district on Aug. 10 — the day before school started — as a way of showing the district the matter was dire.
“We just felt like it wasn’t emergent to them and then, as the list kept growing and we weren’t seeing the communication and the movement that should be happening, we filed the grievance,” Yocum said. “Upon filing the grievance, we actually saw movement from the district in approving overtime for their A/C technicians to work, you know, in the evenings, on the weekends.”
Yocum said she and PCPS Superintendent Frederick Heid have a great working relationship, noting that he even sits in on bargaining sessions — one of the few superintendents in the state to do that. She likened having to file the grievance to going to marital counseling.
“Both our union and the district have an interest in solving this quickly because, right now, we have teachers and students who are in very hot horrendous conditions,” she said. “Part of the grievance procedure is so that we can come together and problem solve and come to a conflict resolution … That’s our role. And that’s their role. And we both have different ways of approaching it, but the goal is the same.”
There is a closed-door class action grievance meeting Friday at 1 p.m. The union also sent a text message to teachers, encouraging any who have experienced issues to attend the next School Board meeting on Tuesday wearing their black PEA T-shirts.
“We are asking for PCPS employees who have experienced problems with their A/Cs in classrooms, offices, or in common areas to come and speak in front of and be present at the school board,” the text read. “They need to know how this is impacting employees and students! … we NEED the board to know about the deplorable, deteriorating teaching and learning conditions.”
Kennedy said PCPS has been in contact with other school districts in the region and found they are dealing with the same challenges of maintaining A/C systems in extreme heat. He added that other school districts around the country have been facing these same issues.
For context, he said that A/C issues made up fewer than 13% of the total work orders they received this summer.
The district remains short-staffed on air-conditioning maintenance technicians. Some experts in the field told LkldNow that the district’s starting pay of about $48,000 a year is too low and that’s why they are having trouble filling the positions.
District officials are assigning maintenance staff from other trades to assist with A/C work orders. The district has also authorized overtime pay for night and weekend work “to make fixes as quickly as possible.”
There also are ongoing supply chain issues that impact HVAC service. Kennedy noted that Polk County is one of the fastest growing metro areas in the nation, which means those resources are spread thin. There are systemic issues as well, such as the difficulty of maintaining aging school buildings when state funding has not been adequate.
Some teachers have turned to social media to crowdsource portable air conditioners that they could borrow or even keep.
Kennedy said PCPS is prioritizing repairs in rooms without working A/C that are used by students and deploying portable units where possible.
“As a temporary measure, schools have the flexibility to relocate students if they are in rooms without working A/C,” he said. “The district is also working to ensure that school thermostats are being set at appropriate levels, as a way to avoid moisture/mold buildup, and prevent A/C systems from being overtaxed.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the district has been doing extensive HVAC work at various schools to improve air flow and filtration. The federal government handed down $40 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds “for various air quality initiatives, of which more than $6 million has been spent to purchase and install more than 500 new A/C systems,” he said.
“With those factors in mind, we are deploying all available resources to make fixes as quickly as possible, and we appreciate the patience of our students and staff as we do the necessary work to ensure their comfort and safety,” Kennedy said.
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