A teacher took a photograph of their thermostat during orientation at North Lakeland Elementary School. It was 80 degrees in their classroom. | Provided Photo

With 150 of Polk County's public schools set to open their doors Friday for the first day of school, the Polk Education Association teachers’ union has filed a class-action grievance against the school district because of multiple air-conditioning outages throughout the county.

“It's hot out here,” said PEA President Stephanie Yocum, standing outside of Davenport High School on Thursday afternoon, when it was 95 degrees outside, with the 56% humidity making it feel like 106 degrees.

“It's the same temperature in some of these rooms and we're expecting our teachers to teach, our students to learn,” she added.

One North Lakeland Elementary School teacher posted a photo of their classroom thermostat, taken during orientation earlier this week. It was set on 72 degrees, but the temperature in the room was 80.

Yocum told Jazbablog that there are issues at least 15 schools, “with varying number of units not working at each school. Some have wings of classrooms out.” Eight of the 15 are in Lakeland:

  • Blake Academy
  • Crystal Lake Middle
  • George Jenkins High
  • Kathleen Elementary
  • Lake Gibson Middle
  • North Lakeland Elementary
  • Socrum Elementary
  • Traviss Vocational Technical School

Other Polk County Public Schools that are affected:

  • Alturus Elementary in Alturas
  • Bartow Middle
  • Boswell Elementary in Auburndale
  • Davenport School of the Arts in Davenport
  • Horizon Elementary in Davenport
  • Sandhill Elementary in Haines City
  • Spessard Holland Elementary in North Bartow/South Lakeland

But that might not be all of the schools — at least one classroom has an outage at Lakeland High School and there are reports of outages at Wendall Watson Elementary and Lawton Chiles Middle Academy, too. Former School Board member Sarah Fortney asked her Facebook followers to tell her about any issues and she said she has a list of 26 schools with AC outages.

PCPS spokesman Kyle Kennedy said because of the deadly heat wave the country has experienced this summer, there is extreme pressure on heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) resources, including parts and labor.

“The severe weather is impacting all of us — residences, businesses and schools,” Kennedy saiid. “Every summer, just before school begins, we typically receive an influx of work orders for A/C issues as staff return to schools. This has been magnified by the ongoing heat wave.”

Yocum said the teachers’ union, which represents more than 9,000 teachers, para-educators and secretary-clerical personnel, has been addressing air conditioning issues with the district since the spring. That’s when the district started systematically changing out thermostats in buildings with ones the district can control, with temperatures set at 72 degrees. She said many of those air conditioning issues were resolved, but now new one are on the rise — just as temperatures in Central Florida are setting new heat records.

“This is not the time for AC units to be broken with parts on back order and a district labor shortage of AC technicians,” Yocum said in a press release. “Our district knew the looming issues with AC units and decided that the ‘wait and see’ approach would be better than being proactive in acquiring extra parts and securing labor to install and maintain these vital pieces of our teaching and learning environments.”

On Thursday afternoon, there were seven openings for air conditioning mechanics on the district’s website, with a starting hourly salary of $23.37 – or $48,609 a year.

Yocum said the grievance is one tool the union can use to force the district to adhere to the terms of their contract when an issue affects more than one person or bargaining unit. district officials have 10 days to respond and set a date for a hearing.

“Our employer is in direct violation of our contracts to, ‘Maintain heating and air conditioning equipment, where available, to provide a comfortable and healthy environment when school is in session except in emergency situations.” Yocum said. “Our working conditions are directly tied to our students’ learning conditions. If our district is truly putting students first, fixing these atrocious working and learning conditions to a ‘comfortable and healthy environment is a must!”

Yocum did acknowledge that air conditioning issues come up each year when teachers return to classrooms a week ahead of students, because the buildings have been unused for the summer. But this year is particularly bad.

Kennedy said PCPS is taking several steps to attack these issues:

  • HVAC technicians and additional teams of maintenance staff are being deployed to schools to assess and prioritize work orders.
  • All available portable air conditioning systems are being deployed and will be used first in critical areas, such as portables and interior classrooms.
  • The district is authorizing overtime pay for staff to handle work orders, including on nights and weekends.
  • PCPS-contracted vendors will be assisting with larger projects such as installing new air conditioning units and duct work.
  • The district is working to upgrade the HVAC equipment in our schools. Approximately $6 million has been spent to purchase more than 500 new air conditioning units. Installation is taking place as soon as possible.
  • Students in classrooms without working air conditioning will be relocated to other areas on campus until fixes are made.

“We appreciate the patience and understanding of our staff and families as we work to address these issues as quickly as possible,” Kennedy said.

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to Jazbablog in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.

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2 Comments

  1. This is ridiculous, they have had all summer to get the schools ready. We are having dangerously high temperatures right now.

  2. Sounds like the Maintenance Department needs to get their act together. I run the maintenance department at Guntersville City School’s in Alabama and we make sure the AC is working way before school starts. My opinion is you are not going to find a good AC technician for $48,000 a year.

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