Sweating the cost

Schools work to balance funds, comfort

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski / Roofers work on the roof mounts of the new air conditioning units at the Williamsburg Community High School on Friday afternoon.

Classroom temperatures can reach 85 degrees or higher the beginning of the school year. But some area school officials sweat the cost of putting in air conditioning because of the costs involved or the age of school buildings.

Officials at the Bellwood-Antis School District are researching upgrades to its 30-year-old middle school-high school HVAC control system, one plagued with holes throughout the copper pipes that constitute its control system to individual classrooms.

Currently, some rooms get very hot at the beginning of school through September, Superintendent Tom McInRoy said. And the problems continue in the winter. It doesn’t look good to taxpayers when they drive by the school building in the winter to see windows open, he said.

“Some rooms are really cold and some are really hot in wintertime. There’s no even consistency in the school; it’s a mess. We are trying to research a solution that is not Cadillac and not a Yugo but something that will do job for the next 20 or 30 years. Once it’s fixed, taxpayers will have a brand new school for a fraction of the cost.”

Between replacing the HVAC control system ($600,000) and replacing “univents” in each classroom ($22,000 each) the district’s research so far points to a $1.8 million project.

The district is not looking to handle it all at one time, McInroy said. However, classroom temperature is important.

“In the spring and in start of school though September, the rooms in the south end of the building get incredibly hot. Temperatures can get up to 85 degrees or warmer. That time of year makes it rough, especially with middle-school age kids,” he said. “And you’ll hear people say, ‘Well, we didn’t have air conditioning when I was a kid. …’ Ok, but we didn’t have high-stakes testing back then. There’s pressure for performance. It’s about making an environment so kids can perform as best they can. It’s a different world now.”

Williamsburg Community School District is working on a heating and cooling project that will provide air conditioning in both of its school buildings.

The new HVAC system requires electrical upgrades. The cost of the new system is $5.5 million. That project will be complete without a tax increase, Superintendent Lisa Murgas said. The district’s contractor has been working on it all summer, but everything will not be ready when school starts on Monday.

“We had a very antiquated boiler system, getting to the point where it wasn’t economical to maintain. That’s the purpose for doing the project. We are saying the new system will last for 30 years, and we are looking at annual energy savings of $9,000 per year,” Murgas said. “We wouldn’t see those savings with the old boiler.”

The new system will bring air conditioning to the district’s school buildings for the first time in the district’s history.

Temperatures in rooms in the past have climbed higher than 85 degrees.

“It’s a tall building and the second floor can get extremely warm. When it’s 90 degrees it makes it difficult to focus on learning. This project will have an impact for the positive and make it a more comfortable learning environment for our students,” Murgas said.

Williamsburg is one of the smallest school districts in the state with fewer than 500 students. When the need for a new HVAC system came up, there was no discussion of merging with another school district.

“The school board and community are committed to the future of this school district. We have no intention of merging with any other school districts. Within the last two years, we have seen increases in enrollment by approximately 3 percent each year,” Murgas said.

She wants those students to have a better classroom environment so they can learn to the best of their ability.

A 2017 Harvard University Study examined evidence from 4.5 million New York City high school exit exams indicating that heat exposure may affect educational performance in both the short and long run.

“Taking an exam on a 90-degree day relative to a 72-degree day results in a reduction in exam performance that is equivalent to a quarter of the Black-White achievement gap, and meaningfully affects longer-run educational outcomes as well, leading to a 12.3 percent higher likelihood of failing a subject exam,” the study states.

It’s been a long-documented issue. Research by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory states studies performed in the ’60s in climate chambers, and other studies in actual classrooms, found reading speed, reading comprehension and multiplication performance by school children to be poorer with temperatures from 81 to 86 degrees, relative to 68 degrees.

Portage Area Elementary School has air conditioning, but the high school for the most part does not, Superintendent Eric Zelanko said.

“Only select areas like the offices and some computer labs have air conditioning. This is proving to be a challenge as warmer temperatures are creating hot classrooms. Last year, we hit a high of 86 degrees in some of our upstairs classrooms. I think everyone would agree that is not the best learning environment for students,” Zelanko stated in an email.

“We actually talked about trying to do something in our high school at last month’s board meeting but finances are limited. I’ll be looking into possible solutions over the next few months.”

All of Altoona Area School District’s schools have some form of air conditioning. Most have central air; that includes eight elementary schools, the Learning Express, the high school and the junior high. While the William P. Kimmel Alternative School has no central air, each classroom will have air conditioning units, district Community Relations Director Paula Foreman said.

All of Tyrone Area’s schools, Spring Cove’s schools and Claysburg-Kimmel’s schools have air conditioning.

At districts that have air conditioning nationwide, there are issues.

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics mailed a survey about the condition of public school facilities was mailed to 1,800 public schools in all 50 states. The surveys were completed by district-level personnel using 2012-13 school-year data.

Air conditioning was rated as being in fair or poor condition by 30 percent of those surveyed.

The age of the buildings at Cambria Heights School District is the reason why there is no air conditioning, Superintendent Mike Strasser said.

“But we are renovating the high school so in two years, the high school will be air conditioned,” he said.

“There are complaints when (students) come back to school … from kids and staff,” he said. “It can get pretty unpleasant.”

The new geothermal system included in the high school renovation can be expanded to heat and cool the middle school as well, but there is no timetable for that.

It would cost a lot to install air conditioning at all school buildings in the district. “We are talking millions,” Strasser said.

None of the elementary schools nor the junior high school in the Hollidaysburg Area School District have air conditioning. Frankstown and Foot-of-Ten schools were built in the ’90s, so they could have included air conditioning, but that was taken out of the plans to cut down on costs, Superintendent Robert Gildea said.

“Even though air conditioning is more affordable now for homeowners, it’s a significant investment for school districts. It’s on our five-year plan. But it’s our goal to not put the district further in debt,” he said.

“Everyone is in agreement that AC would certainly provide a more conducive learning environment in the early fall and late spring months, but retrofitting 80-year-old buildings like our junior high is a significant investment and one that has to be planned well in advance in order to avoid incurring additional debt.”