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External report on heater failures at San Antonio ISD delayed again

Two men wearing a black jacket and a plaid flannel shirt work on a pipe.
San Antonio ISD
A screenshot of SAISD's video update showing workers repairing part of an HVAC system.

When heaters broke down across the San Antonio Independent School District in January during some of the coldest days of the year, district leaders promised to work with a third party to determine the causes of the failures and share the findings with the public.

Initially, SAISD officials said the external report “may take a few weeks.” Then, in late February, they said it would be out in late March. Five days into April, the report is still not out.

In a video update released Friday morning, Superintendent Jaime Aquino said the external report is coming as promised, and that they “anticipate receiving an executive summary” of that review “later this spring.”

“We have partnered with the Texas Association of School Business Officials, also known as TASBO, for this purpose,” Aquino said. “They are conducting a thorough investigation as we would expect them to do.”

Aquino said other reports from TASBO will be released “in phases as they continue this crucial work,” and that TASBO has also connected SAISD with HVAC experts “to prepare for a response to the inquiry findings.”

Aquino also said a committee of the board of trustees formed to find the cause of the heater failures will "conclude its work in the coming weeks" and present their findings at an upcoming board meeting.

"Most importantly, we want you to know our goal is to prevent a recurrence of the events that occurred in January. The well-being of our students and staff will always be our top priority," Aquino said.

Maintenance update

In the meantime, Aquino gave an update on the district’s HVAC systems.

He said SAISD has already replaced HVAC systems at 18 campuses and will replace them at 12 more campuses by the end of the summer. Funding for the replacements come from the 2020 bond.

Aquino said a total of 52 campuses are slated to receive HVAC upgrades under the bond, and the upgrades at the remaining 22 campuses will depend on the schedule for other updates those schools are receiving under the bond.

A man works on an outdoor part of an HVAC system.
San Antonio ISD
A screenshot of more HVAC work included in SAISD's April video update.

“Our aging system, comprised of multiple systems assembled over the years, is ill-equipped to handle extreme fluctuations in temperatures. As a result, solutions will not happen overnight,” Aquino said.

In the update, Aquino provided new details on the history of heating and cooling in the district in order to explain how that history complicates upkeep.

“Our district, which is 125 years old, had 75 school buildings built before air conditioning was common,” Aquino said, adding that a bond in the 80s enabled SAISD to add air conditioning to those 75 buildings.

We updated the old heating-only two-pipe system by adding a chiller and other mechanical parts,” Aquino said. “This was done using the existing infrastructure at that time, which was the most practical and cost-effective solution for many schools.”

Aquino said schools built in the 1950s typically used a four-pipe system, and now some SAISD campuses have both pipe systems.

A diagram comparing a two-pipe system and a four-pipe system for heating and cooling.
San Antonio ISD
A screenshot of a diagram shown in the April video update comparing SAISD's original two-pipe system with the more modern four-pipe system.

“We have been working tirelessly and diligently to address our aging systems,” Aquino said. “As promised during the January freeze, a districtwide needs assessment has been conducted to address critical HVAC needs. Ongoing system inspections and repairs are being carried out, with support from external HVAC vendors and contractors.”

When district leaders first realized the scope of the heater failures in January, Aquino said the breakdowns were due to a combination of human error and system failures.

“What happened was, we made a human error in terms of not manually overriding the system so that the boilers would run 24 hours in some of our schools,” Aquino said at the time. “That error led to major issues in our infrastructure in terms of the boiler pipes breaking down. They completely froze. So, we are right now sending technicians to every single campus to determine the magnitude of that.”

The following week, SAISD Chief of Staff Toni Thompson said schools had five different climate control systems “that created some challenges for [the] HVAC department to monitor.”

In that second January press conference, district leaders also emphasized that repairs had been delayed due to inadequate funding from the state. When asked by Texas Public Radio what percentage of the heater failures were due to human error, Thompson said “about a third.”

“It’s not a finite number yet because we’re still conducting that analysis,” Thompson said. “For about a third of our schools last weekend, part of the problem was that they hadn’t been reprogrammed. And that contributed to the heating failure.”

An external report will help clarify how much human error played a role in the breakdowns.

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Camille Phillips can be reached at camille@tpr.org or on Instagram at camille.m.phillips. TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.