It’s a bit like playing whack-a-mole.
When schools opened in late August, many students in Guilford County experienced sweltering heat both inside and outside the classrooms. Three schools – Smith High School, Ragsdale High School and Jamestown Middle School – had to temporarily close their buildings as temperatures in the classroom rose to uncomfortable levels. All schools are now open again. The problem is not new, according to school district officials. Chronic underfunding, delayed maintenance and now shortages of labor and supplies have led to another year of HVAC systems failing within the school district. And this comes at a time when students are finally returning to classrooms after having to be largely virtual for the past two school years.
“The average age of our schools is 55 years old,” said Winston McGregor, vice president of Guilford County Schools. “Of course it’s the older buildings that have problems because we didn’t have the money to fix them.”
According to school officials, 109 of the district’s 126 schools have submitted work orders for repairs to the HVAC system.
According to district guidelines, when the temperature in a classroom is above 85 degrees, “students should be moved to a cooler area on campus” and “if at least half of the school building … has no air conditioning or has temperatures above 85 degrees and students cannot reasonably be moved to cooler areas, 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 state of HVAC systems in the school district. According to Reed, total work orders in the district are up 39 percent; they received about 1,000 work orders in August. By August 31, the district had reduced that number to about 700. But as officials explained at the press conference, the situation in the district is not one that can be solved with simple solutions.
“We pay the bagpiper for the decisions we made 10 years ago,” McGregor said in an interview. “We’re digging out the hole, but it’s not a hole the education board has dug.”
According to McGregor, much of the fault lies in the way previous county commissioners have allocated money to the school board in recent years. She explained how in the state of North Carolina, funding for schools comes directly from the state and county. And in recent years, the majority of the Republican Guilford County Commission favored tax cuts rather than funding schools, McGregor claimed. Last fall, three seats turned blue, turning the board into a majority-democratic entity for the first time in years. McGregor said she hopes the new makeup will bring more money to the schools, avoiding this problem in a decade.
“We see that the current board of provincial commissioners is taking this very seriously,” she said. “So when we pass the second bond, in 10 years, we can say, ‘Boy, we made decisions that made a difference in this community.'”
Last year, in the same election that turned county commissioners blue, voters overwhelmingly voted to approve a $300 million bond that will be used to build and replace nine schools in the district. Those nine schools will have new HVAC systems that will hopefully last for years. But that’s just a drop in the ocean for the district’s 126 schools. As reported by TCB, a 2019 study of school district facilities found that it would take $2 billion to repair more than 100 schools in the district. But last May, the former county commissioners voted to allow just $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, McGregor says, is another school band.
“We asked for $1.6 billion last time and they put in $300 million,” McGregor said. “I think the process requires us to file another request.”
In addition to the school bond funds already discussed, the school district receives annual capital maintenance funds to help repair schools. Last year, the school district requested $20 million for their investment fund, including $9 million for HVAC projects and $5 million for roof projects. In the end, however, the former county commissioners voted to pass just $4 million. Earlier this year, the provincial commissioners voted unanimously to grant $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 emergency aid for elementary and secondary schools because of the pandemic. According to a presentation from the district, Guilford County Schools has received $286.8 million in ESSER funds that will 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 over the past decade, they could have used that funding for other issues created by the pandemic.
“That money would be used for learning loss,” McGregor said. “And there’s a lot of regulation about what that money can be spent on.”
McGregor also clarified in both the August 31 press conference and in the interview with TCB that’s just because the school district seems to have certain excess funds, such as open bus driver positions, that that funding can’t be used for HVAC repairs.
“There is false and misleading information out there about what kind of funding can actually be used to fix schools,” “The law restricts how we use our funding. The state doesn’t allow us to use transportation funding to fix HVAC, even if we have bus driver job openings, the state doesn’t allow us to use funding for teaching positions that we didn’t fill to fix an HVAC system, that’s not how the law works. We’re limited by those rules that the state legislator approves.”
The best thing that could happen in the future, McGregor noted, is for voters to pass another school bond next year.
“We have another $1.7 billion to pass,” McGregor said. “None of that will happen overnight.”
While funding is important and has been an issue in the past, veteran Guilford County Commissioner Chairman Skip Alston told: TCB that he doesn’t think funding is the main issue right now.
“I really don’t think it’s a money issue right now,” he said. “The schools have not come to us for extra money.”
Alston, who echoed some of the sentiments expressed by McGregor in terms of past underfunding by county commissioners, said he believes the main problem is the supply chain and labor shortages.
“The problem is their lack of manpower,” he said. “The school district has contacted air conditioning companies within a 50-mile radius. I think that’s the main problem and get people to fix the units and the parts. I think it’s more than just a money issue.”
According to coverage by ACHR News, a retail outlet focused on air conditioning, heating and refrigeration, the HVACR industry has reported record sales in 2020 and the first half of 2021, but is experiencing a parts and supply chain problem. One of the biggest problems is that manufacturers continue to struggle to find enough people to work in factories. The article also notes that transportation logistics, such as a shortage of sea containers and a lack of truck drivers, is also contributing to a supply freeze.
“I’ve talked to the inspector about it several times,” Alston said. “She said, ‘I can’t find anyone to fix it.’… I know it’s a labor problem and you don’t have enough HVAC contractors to meet the demand. Demand is so high right now and many people cannot get the parts for their air conditioning systems.”
Janson Silvers, a school district spokesperson, reiterated the same concerns in an email to: TCB.
“We are actively solving problems and are actively working on identifying new problems on a daily basis,” he wrote. “We have a year-round maintenance program to meet the needs of our buildings. Many work orders require parts/equipment to complete the work. And we are currently experiencing a significant impact on our lead time due to the national supply shortage. When the parts are received, we send technicians to install, as we want to make sure that all sites are operating at an optimal level.”
Alston said he is committed as county commissioner to help fix schools so students can learn in safe environments. And as the warmer months transition into fall and winter, he understands that those same systems that don’t cool don’t warm up in colder temperatures. For now, he said all you need to do is be patient.
“We will put an end to this together; we want to work with the school system,” he said. “We want to get started as soon as possible because time is of the essence, but at the same time we are at the mercy of the workforce.”