Broken air conditioning has students, teachers sweating

Broken air conditioning has students, teachers sweating

August 12th, 2011 by Ben Benton and Kevin Hardy in News

Students work despite the heat in Julie Weisgerber's first-grade class just before an early dismissal at East Lake Elementary School late Thursday morning. According to principal Johnson, vandals took $50 worth of copper from the school's HVAC unit resulting in $10,000 to $40,000 worth of repairs.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Stacy Johnson was in bed by 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, exhausted from spending a day working in a building with no air conditioner.

Johnson, principal at East Lake Elementary School, said many staff members reported exhaustion and headaches from working in the steamy building on Wednesday.

"I've heard that same story over and over," she said. "This is definitely something I thought I would never experience."

Vandals caused between $10,000 and $20,000 in damage to East Lake's air conditioner on Tuesday night when they stole about $50 worth of copper from the outside unit. Officials expect repairs to be completed by Saturday.

In the meantime, school is dismissing at 12:30 p.m. and teachers are left to cope with the heat. By 1 p.m. Thursday, the digital thermometer in the office area at East Lake read 87 degrees, though Johnson suspected the classrooms were probably well above that.

While most area schools have air conditioning in every classroom, school officials say keeping rooms cool and students hydrated are a top priority this time of year.

Gary Waters, Hamilton County Schools assistant superintendent of auxiliary services, said the district has 12 technicians working overtime to keep the system's 7.4 million square feet of school buildings cool.


Elementary schools: Lost 63 students

Middle schools: Gained 420 students

High schools: Gained 108 students

Source: Hamilton County Department of Education


Hamilton County Schools reported a 465-student increase in first-day attendance over last year, bringing the district's total Wednesday to 39,418. That number may rise, officials said, because students usually filter in until September. Last year, Hamilton County had 41,950 students by the 20th day of classes.

"We're just so used to air conditioning everywhere now," he said. "It's almost impossible to work without it."

In Georgia, Walker County Schools elected to hold off on starting school in August partly because of the potential energy savings, said public information coordinator Elaine Womack. School will begin Sept. 1 to save on utility costs and cut down on total number of school days and transportation costs, she said.

"Because August was so hot last year, we decided to start later and we shortened our school year," she said.

In Tennessee's Marion County, Maintenance Director Gerald Thomas said the school system was having air-conditioning problems "right and left" this week. The nine-school system has only two heating and air technicians for more than 1,000 pieces of cooling equipment, many of which are nearing 10 years old, he said.

"Right now, we're putting out fires," he said. "We're trying our best to satisfy everybody."

Just up the road in Sequatchie County, Director of Schools Johnny Cordell said there have been no major breakdowns for most air conditioners operating on the county's three-school campus in Dunlap. Wall units cause the most problems because many teachers run them until they freeze up, Cordell said.

"It's extremely hot, and the teachers who have control of [their classroom air conditioners] just run them till they're down to 68 degrees," he said.

He estimated that the system's annual electric bill will probably be in line with last year's $467,000 total.

"It was hot last year, too," he said.

When Bradley County Schools began the new school year, a priority for Waterville Community Elementary School Principal Charlene Cofer was teaching children school bus etiquette.

But heat got in the way.

They started the etiquette sessions inside a parked school bus, which Cofer said was too hot. So chairs - set up to mimic the inside of a bus - were set up outside in the shade. Even there, the heat was too oppressive, she said, so the make-believe bus was "backed" into an air-conditioned hallway inside the building with chairs arranged like a school bus.

Tiryque Thomas and Aderrian Roshell, enjoy their lunch in front of an oscillating fan in an attempt to dull the heat at East Lake Elementary School late Thursday morning. According to principal Johnson, vandals took $50 worth of copper from the school's HVAC unit resulting in $10,000 to $40,000 worth of repairs.

Tiryque Thomas and Aderrian Roshell, enjoy their lunch...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Before school started, Cleveland and Bradley County school workers spent a few weeks checking air-conditioning units.

Johnny Mull, energy director for Bradley County Schools, said the inspections include looking at hoses, belts and coils and checking refrigerant levels on each HVAC unit.

"We have 850 HVAC units, so at any time of the year there will be some problems," he said.

A few minor problems were reported with Cleveland's air systems, though officials said repairs were all completed by Thursday morning.

At East Lake Elementary, second-grade teacher Alison Dorough said students seemed to be handling the heat better than the teachers, who probably take air conditioning for granted.

"A lot of our kids probably live in these conditions and are probably used to it," she said as she used a book to fan a student waiting after school. "But we definitely take it for granted."

The school district has brought in box fans for East Lake, though most rooms have only one. Teachers say classrooms are noticeably warmer than hallways and common areas.

Other than frequent water breaks, there's little the staff can do to keep students cool, especially given that the school's windows don't open.

While waiting for rides after school let out at 12:30 p.m., many students said it was cooler sitting outside under the shady overhang than in the steamy classrooms.

Staff writer Randall Higgins contributed to this story.

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