It’s a bit like playing Whack-a-Mole.
When schools opened in late August, many Guilford County students were exposed to searing heat both outside and in the classrooms. Three schools – Smith High School, Ragsdale High School, and Jamestown Middle School – had to temporarily close their buildings because class temperatures rose to uncomfortable levels. The schools have all been reopened since then. The problem is not new, according to school district officials. Chronic underfunding, delayed maintenance, and now a shortage of manpower and materials have caused HVAC systems in the school district to fail for another year. And this at a time when students are finally returning to the classroom after having been mostly virtual for the last two school years.
“The average age in our schools is 55,” said Winston McGregor, vice chairman of Guilford County Schools. “Of course it’s the older buildings that have problems because we didn’t have the means to fix them.”
According to school authorities, 109 of the 126 schools in the district have submitted work orders to repair HVAC systems.
If the temperatures in a classroom exceed 85 degrees, according to the guidelines of the district “students must be moved to a cooler environment on campus” and “if at least half of the school building … has no air conditioning or temperatures above 85 degrees and the students” can not reasonably be relocated to cooler areas, then the school should be closed to all students. “
At a press conference last week, McGregor was joined by COO Michelle Reed and CFO Angie Henry to answer questions about the health of HVAC systems across the school district. According to Reed, the district saw total work orders increase 39 percent; In August alone, they received around 1,000 work orders. By August 31, the district had reduced this number to around 700. But as officials explained at the press conference, the situation in the district cannot be solved with simple solutions.
“We’re paying the Piper for the decisions we made 10 years ago,” McGregor said in an interview. “We’re digging out of the hole, but it’s not a hole the education committee dug.”
Much of the mistake, according to McGregor, lies in how previous district officers have allocated funds to the school council in recent years. She explained how North Carolina state funding for schools comes direct from the state and the county. And in recent years, the majority Republican Guilford County Commission has prioritized tax cuts over school funding, McGregor said. Last fall, three seats were colored blue, making the board a democratic majority for the first time in years. McGregor said she hopes the new makeup will bring more money to schools to avoid this problem in a decade.
“We can see that the current district commissioner is taking this really seriously,” she said. “So if we get the second loan in 10 years, we can say, ‘Boy, we’ve made choices that made a difference in this community.'”
Last year, during the same election that made district officials blue, voters overwhelmingly voted for a $ 300 million loan to be used to build and replace nine schools in the district. These nine schools will have new HVAC systems that will hopefully last for years. But that’s just a drop in the ocean from a total of 126 schools in the district. As reported by TCB, a 2019 facility study conducted by the school district found it would take $ 2 billion to repair more than 100 schools in the district. However, last May, former district officials voted to approve only $ 300 million – less than 20 percent of the school board’s original request for $ 1.6 billion – to repair the schools. What the district needs now, says McGregor, is another school loan.
“We asked for $ 1.6 billion last time and they raised $ 300 million,” said McGregor. “I think the process requires us to make another request.”
In addition to the school loans that have already been applied for, the school district receives annual capital maintenance funds to help repair schools. Last year, the school district applied for $ 20 million for its investment fund, of which $ 9 million was for HVAC projects and $ 5 million for rooftop projects. In the end, however, the former district officials voted to pass only $ 4 million. Earlier this year, the district commissioners voted unanimously to allocate $ 229 million to Guilford County Schools. Approximately $ 10 million of this will be used for deferred maintenance projects outside of school bond-related projects.
Due to the pandemic, the school district has also received funding from the federal government in the form of ESSER funds, or primary and secondary school emergency aid for short. According to a presentation by the district, Guilford County Schools have received $ 286.8 million in ESSER funds that are slated to be used through 2023-24. And while some of that funding is being used to fix HVAC issues, McGregor noted that if the systems had been properly maintained for the past decade, they could have used those funds on other issues caused by the pandemic.
“This money will be used for learning losses,” said McGregor. “And there are a lot of rules about what that money can be spent on.”
McGregor made it clear both during the August 31 press conference and in an interview with TCB that just because the school district appears to have certain excess funds, such as open bus driver positions, that funds cannot be used for HVAC repairs.
“There is false and misleading information about what kind of funding can actually be used to repair schools.” “The law restricts the use of our funds. The state doesn’t allow us to use transportation to repair HVAC even if we have open bus driver positions. The state does not allow us to use funds on apprenticeships that we did not fill to repair an HVAC system; That’s not how the law works. We are restricted by these regulations, which are enacted by the legislature of the federal states. “
For the future, McGregor said, the best thing is for voters to vote for another school bond next year.
“We have to pass another $ 1.7 billion,” said McGregor. “None of this will happen overnight.”
Although funding is important and has been an issue in the past, veteran chairman of Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston told TCB that he doesn’t think funding is the main issue now.
“I really don’t think it’s a question of money right now,” he said. “The schools didn’t come to us for additional funding.”
Alston, who reiterated some of McGregor’s views about district commissioners’ underfunding in the past, said he believed the supply chain and labor shortage were the main problem.
“The problem is their labor shortage,” he said. “The school district has contacted air conditioning companies within a 50-mile radius. I think that’s the main problem and getting people to fix the units and parts. I think it’s more than just a question of money. “
The HVACR industry reported record sales in 2020 and the first half of 2021, but is suffering from a parts and supply chain problem, according to reports from ACHR News, a company specializing in air conditioning, heating and cooling. One of the biggest problems is that manufacturers continue to struggle to find enough workers for the factories. The article also suggests that transportation logistics such as a shortage of shipping containers and lack of truck drivers also contribute to a supply bottleneck.
“I’ve spoken to the superintendent about this several times,” Alston said. “She said, ‘I can’t find someone to fix it.’ … I know it’s a work problem and you don’t have enough HVAC contractors to meet the demand. The demand is so high right now and a lot of people cannot get the parts for their air conditioners. “
Janson Silvers, a school district spokesman, echoed these concerns in an email to TCB.
“We actively troubleshoot problems and actively work to identify new problems every day,” he wrote. “A maintenance program runs all year round to meet the needs of our buildings. Many work orders require parts / equipment to complete the job. And we are currently experiencing significant effects on our lead times due to national delivery bottlenecks. As soon as the parts are received, we send technicians to the installation because we want to make sure that all locations are functioning at an optimal level. “
Alston said that as a county commissioner, he is committed to helping schools fix repairs so students can study in a safe environment. And when the warmer months turn into autumn and winter, he knows that the same systems that don’t cool won’t heat even in colder temperatures. Right now the only thing he has to do is be patient, he said.
“We’ll end this together; we want to work with the school system, ”he said. “We want to try to deal with it as quickly as possible because time is short, but at the same time we are at the mercy of the workforce.”