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Hot schools get a failing grade

Students swelter; air conditioning is too costly

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Students might have had a hard time staying sharp the first few week of school, considering the sweltering 95 degrees in some classrooms.

But it appears relief is in sight — albeit briefly.

While above-normal temperatures in the upper 80s were expected Tuesday and Wednesday, a cold front was expected to roll in early Thursday, dropping temperatures to the upper 60s or maybe 70 degrees.

But it won't last long, said Dave Hogan, forecaster for the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City. Temperatures Friday are expected to be in the mid-70s, then will climb to 80 or 85 for the weekend. The 90s also could return.

That concerns some school leaders, particularly as they prepare this month to give statewide standardized tests.

Cooling schools would help. But air conditioning can stretch tax dollars to the limit, costing as much as $250 a day.

Amid statewide revenue shortfalls and already strained school budgets, it seems most students won't find reprieve outside Mother Nature's good graces.

"It's just a fact of life," Bountiful High assistant principal Gregory Wilkey said of the heat. "Some things, you just bear."

Virtually anyone who attended Utah public schools remembers an occasional swelter. But things might have worsened.

The school year used to stretch from Labor Day to Memorial Day. But newer mandates for 180-day school years force classes to end in June and start in August, Salt Lake City's second-hottest month. While school districts cool year-round schools out of necessity, most don't cool traditional schools, unless they're new.

Temperatures can border on the unbearable. Eisenhower Junior High's classrooms reached 95 degrees in the past week, principal Lori Gardner said.

"We're trying to make sure (students) have enough water. They're tired and having a hard time staying awake," the Taylorsville school principal said. While no children have gone home sick, parents have reported children not feeling well when they come home.

Some educators believe heat affects learning in the first few weeks of school, the same time teachers are preparing students for the first wave of standardized tests used to hold schools accountable for student achievement.

"I'm very concerned that if it doesn't cool down considerably, it could affect students in that situation," Gardner said. Therefore, she plans to test students only in the early morning.

The state has policies on school temperatures. Mostly, they require schools to have a plan to keep students well in the heat, such as with water or fans. They also require schools to report when classroom temperatures reach danger levels, which is a complicated ratio of temperature and humidity readings. The danger level for temperature alone is 100 degrees, for instance.

Schools hope to keep the mercury below that, but finances tie their hands.

Preparing buildings for air conditioning and buying the actual "chiller" can cost $600,000 to $1.5 million per school, said McKell Withers, Granite District assistant superintendent of support services.

Keeping air conditioning running can cost up to $250 a day, based on bills paid by East High School, said Gregg Smith, director of Salt Lake City School District buildings and grounds.

A lot of school districts don't have the money.

Granite District was in such a financial pinch this year that it was replacing library media specialists with aides. Salt Lake City School District budgeters project a more than $11 million shortfall a year from now.

Granite is working on a plan to cool buildings at night, school board president Lynn Davidson said. Simply opening the windows seems logical but poses security problems.

Salt Lake District, on the other hand, has the money to install air conditioners in all schools under a 1999 voter-approved bond worth $136 million. The ongoing cost to run air conditioners in every school has been estimated at $1 million a year; Smith says he's cracking down on use of electricity so running coolers doesn't bite the utilities budget, particularly as energy prices rise.

Right now, 27 of 37 Salt Lake City schools have air conditioning or less-expensive central or rooftop evaporative cooling systems, like swamp coolers.

"It's a lot more pleasant for the teachers, and I'm sure it is for the kids," said Doug McLennan, principal of Newman Elementary, which moved into a new building with a cooling tower this school year. "But as far as being able to notice a big difference, I don't know. I don't think the kids would say it's so much better. We're in a brand new building, so they're going to say the whole building is so much better."

E-MAIL: jtcook@desnews.com