It’s a bit like playing whack-a-mole.
As schools opened in late August, many students in Guilford County faced sweltering heat both outside and inside the classrooms. Three schools — Smith High School, Ragsdale High School and Jamestown Middle School — had to temporarily close their buildings because classroom temperatures rose to uncomfortable levels. The schools have since all reopened. The problem, according to school district officials, is not new. Chronic underfunding, deferred maintenance and now a shortage of labor and supplies has led to yet another year of HVAC systems failing within the school district. And this comes at a time when students are finally returning to the classrooms after having to be mostly virtual throughout the last two school years.
“The average age of our schools is 55 years old,” said Guilford County Schools Vice Chair Winston McGregor. “Of course it’s the older buildings that have problems because we didn’t have the funds to fix them.”
According to the school officials, 109 of the 126 schools within the district have submitted work orders for HVAC system repairs.
According to district guidelines, when temperatures in a classroom exceed 85 degrees, “students must be relocated to a cooler setting on campus” and “if at least half of the school building… is without air-conditioning or has temperatures over 85 degrees and students cannot be reasonably relocated to cooler areas, then the school should be closed for all students.”
At a press conference last week, McGregor was joined by COO Michelle Reed and CFO Angie Henry to answer questions about the state of HVAC systems throughout the school district. According to Reed, the district has seen a 39 percent increase in total work orders; they received about 1,000 work orders just in August. By Aug. 31, the district had whittled that number down to about 700. But as officials explained during the press conference, the situation in the district is not one that can be solved with simple solutions.
“We are paying the piper for the decisions we made 10 years ago,” McGregor said in an interview. “We are digging out of the hole, but it’s not a hole that the board of education dug.”
According to McGregor, much of the fault lies in how the previous county commissioners allocated funding to the school board in past years. She explained how in the state of North Carolina, funding for schools comes directly from the state and the county. And over the last several years, the majority Republican Guilford County Commission prioritized tax cuts rather than funding schools, McGregor claimed. Last fall, three seats flipped blue, making the board a majority Democratic entity for the first time in years. McGregor said that she hopes that with the new makeup, more funding will make its way to the schools, avoiding this problem a decade from now.
“We’re seeing the current board of county commissioners take this really seriously,” she said. “So when we pass the second bond, 10 years from now, we’ll be able to say, ‘Boy, we made decisions that made a difference in this community.’”
What funding for schools looks like moving forward
Last year, during the same election that flipped the county commissioners blue, voters overwhelmingly voted to pass a $300 million bond that will be used to build and replace nine schools within the district. Those nine schools will have new HVAC systems that will hopefully last for years. But that’s just a drop in the bucket of the 126 total schools in the district. As reported by TCB, a 2019 facilities study by the school district found that a $2 billion need to fix more than 100 schools in the district. However, last May, the former county commissioners voted to authorize just $300 million — less than 20 percent of the school board’s initial request for $1.6 billion — to fix the schools. What the district needs now, McGregor says, is another school bond.
“We asked for $1.6 billion last time and they put up $300 million,” McGregor said. “I think the process requires for us to make another request.”
In addition to the school bond funds, which are already spoken for, the school district gets annual capital maintenance funds to help repair schools. Last year, the school district requested $20 million for their capital outlay fund, of which $9 million was allotted for HVAC projects and $5 million was to be set aside for roofing projects. However, in the end, the former county commissioners voted to pass just $4 million. Earlier this year, the county commissioners voted unanimously to allocate $229 million to Guilford County Schools. About $10 million of that will be used to address deferred maintenance projects outside of the school bond-related projects.
The school district has also received funding from the federal government in the form of ESSER funds, or Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, due to the pandemic. According to a district presentation, Guilford County Schools has received $286.8 million in ESSER funds to be used through 2023-24. And while some of that funding will be used to fix HVAC issues, McGregor noted that if the systems had been properly maintained in the last decade, they could have used that funding for other issues brought upon by the pandemic.
“That money is supposed to be used for learning loss,” McGregor said. “And there’s lot of regulation on what that money can be spent on.”
McGregor also clarified during both the Aug. 31 press conference and in the interview with TCB that just because the school district appears to have certain excess funds like open bus driver positions, that that funding cannot be used for HVAC repairs.
“There’s false and misleading information that’s out there about what kind of funding can be actually used to repair schools,” “The law restricts how we use our funding. The state doesn’t allow us to use transportation funding to go fix HVAC even if we have open bus driver positions. The state doesn’t allow us to use funding for teaching positions we haven’t filled to go fix an HVAC system; that’s not how the law works. We are constrained by those regulations that the state legislature passes.”
The best thing moving forward, McGregor noted, is for voters to pass another school bond next year.
“We’ve got to pass another $1.7 billion,” McGregor said. “None of that’s going to happen overnight.”
A national lack of labor and parts exacerbates the problem
While funding is important and has been an issue in the past, veteran Guilford County Commissioner Chair Skip Alston told TCB that he doesn’t think that funding is the main issue now.
“I really don’t think that it’s a money issue right now,” he said. “The schools have not come to us for additional funds.”
Alston, who echoed some of the sentiments brought forth by McGregor in terms of past underfunding by county commissioners, said that he believes the main issue is supply chain and a shortage of labor.
“The problem is their lack of labor,” he said. “The school district has contacted air conditioning companies in a 50-mile radius. I think that’s the main issue and getting people to fix the units and the parts. I think it’s more than just a money issue.”
According to reporting by ACHR News, an outlet focused on air conditioning, heating and refrigeration, the HVACR industry has reported record sales in 2020 and the first half of 2021 but are experiencing a parts and supply-chain issue. One of the biggest problems is that manufacturers are continuing to struggle to find enough people to work in factories. The article also notes that transportation logistics such as a shortage of shipping containers and lack of truck drivers is also contributing to a supply chokehold.
“I’ve talked to the superintendent several times about it,” Alston said. “She said, ‘I can’t find anybody to fix it.’… I know that it’s a labor problem and you don’t have enough HVAC contractors to take care of the demand. The demand is so high right now and a lot of people can’t get the parts for their air conditioning systems.”
Janson Silvers, a spokesperson for the school district, echoed those same concerns in an email to TCB.
“We are actively fixing issues and are actively working on identifying new issues daily,” he wrote. “A maintenance program is ongoing throughout the year to support the needs of our buildings. Many work orders require parts/equipment to complete the work. And currently, we are experiencing a significant impact to our turnaround time due to the national supply shortage. As parts are received, we are dispatching techs to install as we want to ensure all locations are operating at optimal levels.”
Alston said that as county commissioner, he’s dedicated to helping schools be repaired so that students can learn in safe environments. And as the warmer months transition into fall and winter, he understands that those same systems that are failing to cool, will also fail to heat in colder temperatures. For now, he said that the only thing to do is to be patient.
“We’ll end this together; we want to work with the school system,” he said. “We want to try to deal with it as soon as possible because time is of the essence, but at the same time we’re at the mercy of the labor force.”
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