Prince George's County working to improve HVAC systems after heat-related closures of Bowie schools

jochavez@capgaznews.com

A day after closing early for high temperatures, Bowie schools held classes for a full day last Thursday, despite outdoor temperatures remaining in the mid-90’s.

Some parents say their children experienced classroom temperatures in the mid-80’s during school hours. Prince George’s County Public Schools officials say air conditioning units at several schools have been repaired in recent weeks.

Former Whitehall PTA President Katie Moran addressed the situation in written testimony to the county school board, asking why the county “decided it was okay to have specifically my child in a classroom that reached 85 degrees.”

“Our county’s maintenance issues need to be better addressed,” she wrote. “Your scholars can not learn in these conditions and it’s unsafe.”

County officials said air conditioning units have been repaired at Rockledge Elementary, Samuel Ogle Middle and the Bowie High Annex at Belair. Repairs are underway at Whitehall Elementary.

Documents reviewed by The Bowie Blade-News showed Kenilworth Elementary, Pointer Ridge Elementary, Yorktown Elementary, Tasker Middle and Bowie High’s main campus have requested HVAC repairs over the last six months.

The county’s seasonal temperature standards stipulate the cooling season — outlined as May 5-Oct. 15 — calls for temperatures inside special education classrooms to be set at 75 degrees and all other locations at 78 degrees, provided they have access to air conditioning.

District 5 school board member Raaheela Ahmed said she met with county officials Tuesday to discuss the maintenance issues Bowie schools face and came away with a better understanding of where the problem lies and what will be done to solve the issue.

Ahmed said the county faced “thousands” of work orders for various maintenance issues at the beginning of August. Combined with the issue that replacing HVAC units in individual classes can cost more than $16,000, resources to resolve the issues were stretched.

“Because they are so (stretched), it’s hard to go and directly place them in a school, and some schools have multiple classrooms where this is an issue,” Ahmed said. “At that point, you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars to go and replace units that aren’t working right.”

Ahmed said despite the workload and cost of the repairs, maintenance teams have been working “days, nights and weekends” to solve the issues facing the county in a timely manner.

In some cases, the county has opted for “band-aid” solutions to control the temperature in classrooms without air conditioning, Ahmed said. These solutions include high-maintenance portable air conditioning units.

Moran said air blowers, which kick up dust and exacerbate mold issues more than cooling classrooms, were used in Whitehall.

“I think that because they refuse to perform maintenance on their equipment, they run into these hugely expensive problems,” she said. “They’ve known for a long time that our equipment is very old.”

However, Ahmed said the school board is looking at “outside the box” solutions to funnel the necessary funds into the school system to address maintenance issues.

Public-Private Partnerships, or P3’s, which could bring funds from outside the state, are being explored by the board’s capital improvement team.

The Innovation Incentive Pilot Program, a bill proposed by state Sen. Jim Rosapepe, D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, and passed in the 2018 legislation, could redirect funds to county schools where maintenance repairs are needed as soon as next year.

“When the county proposes a new or substantiality rehabilitated school at 30 percent less than the average cost per student of all school construction projects in the state, it’ll get a 20 percent state aid for that school,” Rosapepe said.

While the legislation was not designed to alleviate maintenance issues specifically, Rosapepe said the bill is designed to “make existing dollars go farther,” especially as schools face the reality of a changing climate.

The Department of Capital Programs has put in a request for $16.58 million in the Fiscal Year 2020 capital budget for “A/C and HVAC upgrades,” one of the largest singular requests on the budget.

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