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Here's Why Schools Have a Hard Time Getting Classrooms Air Conditioned

By Amy Zimmer | July 28, 2016 3:51pm
 The city has funding for electric upgrades for air conditioners, but schools themselves must buy units.
The city has funding for electric upgrades for air conditioners, but schools themselves must buy units.
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Shutterstock/ Joseph McCullar

MANHATTAN — Students and teachers have long complained about how hot schools get at the end of the school year and during the summer, which is why nearly all of the more than 300 school buildings offering city-run summer school programs have air conditioning.

But the heat is no longer just a problem in the spring and summer.

At the start of the school year high temperatures can persist through October, which is why parents and educators are ramping up their calls for air conditioning in classrooms.

“Unfortunately, a consequence of global warming is that we have more than 100 more ... days where you need air conditioning” each year, said Park Slope City Councilman Brad Lander at a DOE budget hearing in May. "Our kids just can’t learn in many of our school buildings on an increasing number of hot days. We’re losing the months of June and September, and we can’t afford to lose two months in school that don’t have air conditioning.”

Funding for air conditioning units, or the electrical upgrades to run them, is not a simple matter. Here's why:

DOE capital funds can be used for wiring upgrades, but the funds are limited.

Under DOE budget rules, the city can pay to wire schools for air conditioning — and has earmarked $50 million for school data wiring upgrades in its 5-year capital plan, some of which will be allocated to air conditioning.

The DOE has not yet selected the schools where it plans to upgrade wiring, but Deputy Chancellor for Operations Elizabeth Rose told the City Council at the May budget hearing that schools with the fewest classrooms with air conditioning will get priority.

The DOE will also give priority to schools that are eligible for free or reduced lunch, she noted.

Nearly 95 percent of school buildings have at least some air conditioning, said DOE spokeswoman Toya Holness. But that stat did not distinguish between classrooms, offices, cafeterias, nurses offices and other spaces.

Many families and officials say the number of classrooms with working air conditioning is often insufficient.

City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, for example, recalled at the hearing that when she was a director of an afterschool and summer camp program several years back, hot days were often problematic and "heartbreaking."

“The trick was that everybody got a little time to go to the computer room,” the Corona councilwoman said, “because that was the only room that had air conditioning.”

► DOE capital funds cannot be used for the air conditioning units themselves.

The city cannot buy the units for schools using its capital fund.

That leaves cash-strapped schools having to make the impossible choice between spending their individual operations budget on teachers and textbooks — or on air conditioning.

“We’ve had years where by April it’s gotten hot, and you have kids taking the [state] tests, and they can’t function,” said NeQuan McLean, head of the Community Education Council for Bed-Stuy’s District 16.

But it’s not easy for the schools in his district, which are overwhelmingly low-income schools that have in recent years seen a shrinking student body, to pony up the money for A/C units.

“A lot of the schools in our district are underutilized, and funding comes through enrollment,” McLean said. “We can barely afford teachers.”

► It often falls on PTAs to raise money to buy air conditioners.

Forcing schools to come up with the cash for the air conditioning units penalizes more impoverished schools that don't have high-earning PTAs to help them make ends meet, many say. Schools with affluent PTAs often raise money for air conditioning so their schools don’t have to divert their operating expenses from other educational needs.

At schools like P.S. 87, on the Upper West Side, whose PTA raises more than $1 million a year, the association funded a schoolwide air-conditioner installation, costing $4,000 a room, according to the New York Times.

The Upper East Side's P.S. 6, another fundraising powerhouse, also raised money for air conditioners, the New York Post reported.  The PTA at P.S. 58 in Carroll Gardens, which raises nearly $800,000 a year, according to tax filings, covered costs of air conditioners, its website noted. 

Making matters worse, principals say, since schools have to use their city-issued operating budget that are subject to the DOE-approved vendor rules, it can make simple purchases more costly than they would be otherwise.

PTAs get to bypass those rules and spend the money on whatever vendors they choose.

“The schools in my district where the PTA is going to raise the money for air conditioners — those kids don’t get any hotter than the schools in… anybody else’s district, and it’s not fair,” Lander said in May.

The need for air conditioning was so strong that McLean, who is also president of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s P.S./M.S. 262 PTA, planned to partner with the fundraising powerhouse at Park Slope’s P.S. 321 to help his school purchase air conditioners.

The two schools connected through an organization called PTA Link, which supports parent organizations through collaboration, and were about to brainstorm ways to raise the estimated $60,000 to buy units for 30 classrooms.

But before the fundraising efforts began, the custodian at McLean’s school told them the campaign would be for naught since the school wasn’t wired to handle the units.

► Sometimes schools have the wiring for A/C units but can’t afford them and sometimes they can buy the units but don’t have the wiring.

McLean isn’t sure what his school's next steps are for their air conditioning project. He’s not sure if his school would be on the priority list for wiring upgrades.

The second floor is wired for air conditioning and has some units, but the third floor, which houses the middle school, is not, nor is the first floor, which houses the school's youngest grades.

The amount of air conditioning is insufficient, he said, noting that only about 3 schools in the district have enough air conditioners to host summer school, which is why the same schools host it every summer even though others would like to.

At the specialized high school Brooklyn Tech, the PTA (after heated debate) recently raised $30,000 to fix the school's broken air conditioners, said former co-president Elissa Stein.

But the PTA could not buy any new units since the building didn't have sufficient electrical upgrades.

Parents volunteered to do the wiring themselves, but were not allowed under School Construction Authority Rules.

"It was very frustrating," she said. "All of our kids suffer in the heat. You have kids taking AP exams in 95-degree weather, and you want them to be alright."