Broken heaters chill city classrooms

While the temperatures in San Francisco dipped to being frightful, out-of-service heaters in city schools kept classrooms short of being delightful.

Hundreds of quivering-lipped students in the school district have been going to class clad in winter jackets, wool socks and sometimes pajamas under their clothes to bundle up for what’s inside: a teacher and a broken heater.

For the past two weeks — when low temperatures dipped into the 30s and highs barely reached above 50 — about two schools a day have been calling facilities managers to pump up the heat. In other cases, teachers were more concerned about making the heat work or, in rare instances, turning off the cold air, according to San Francisco Unified School District officials.

Bilingual support teacher Roque Baron at Bryant Elementary School said that last week when temperatures dropped to the 30s, the school’s industrial-sized heater on the roof was blowing a frigid breeze into classrooms.

“I had a nice winter jacket on,” Baron said. “I finally went up on the roof and turned it off myself. It was just too much.”

The heater at Bryant Elementary — which accommodates kindergartners through fifth-graders — had an electrical failure that took about a week to fix, he said. It affected the entire two-story building on what may have been the coldest day of the year.

“The buildings are old, so whenever winter comes, problems always arise,” veteran Board of Education Commissioner Jill Wynns said. “When it gets cold, sometimes it doesn’t work and you have to fix it — not that it’s OK for there to be no heat.”

The district attempts to keep its classrooms at temperatures that range between 68 degrees and 70 degrees, spokeswoman Gentle Blythe said. Each room is regulated by a thermostat or by adjusting a radiator, Blythe said.

The district has been responding to the complaints about heat, and it must determine whether to make repairs to old parts or purchase new equipment, SFUSD Chief Facilities Officer David Goldin said.

But according to the district, the main culprit of the cold temperatures in the classroom is having a system that is not geared toward extreme weather.

“The school district is really not set up for extreme temperatures, either hot or cold — we’re a moderate climate,” Goldin said.

A lack of heat in a classroom is against state regulations if it contines for 40 working days after a complaint has been registered.

Every California classroom is to be clean and safe following a 2004 lawsuit settlement that charged the state was failing to provide bare essentials. The settlement requires, among other things, that a broken heating or air-conditioning system must be addressed within 40 workings days. That requirement — named the Williams legislation after the lawsuit that led to it — is part of the educational code.

A representative for the teachers union, the United Educators of San Francisco, received so many complaints that on Friday he sent every teacher a reminder that chilly classrooms are grounds for a possibile lawsuit. He also went as far as sending a complaint form.

“Let’s just say, within the first 15 minutes [of sending out the reminder], we got a call,” union President Dennis Kelly said.

The school district says there has only been one Williams complaint filed.


Sans warmth

As of Monday, the SFUSD has five schools reporting heat issues:

R.L. Stevenson Elementary School    Site without heat Monday morning   
Redding Elementary School    Hallway and some rooms without heat  
Monroe Elementary School    One room without heat
Sutro Elementary School    Four rooms without heat
Sunset Elementary School    Three rooms without heat

Source: SFUSD

Filing complaints

The so-called Williams rules protect against unsafe conditions in schools. Possible reasons, among others, for filing a complaint — which would require the district to come up with a solution within 40 working days:

–The heating, ventilation, fire sprinkler or air-conditioning system is broken.
–The school is infested with pests or vermin (for example, rats).
–School windows are broken or exterior doors or gates will not lock and pose a security risk.
–A building is damaged, creating a hazardous or uninhabitable condition.

Source: ACLU

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