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AC breakdowns likely when San Antonio ISD returns in August

HVAC equipment surrounded by a brick wall outside an SAISD campus.
SAISD officials say repairs are still underway following the HVAC failures in January, and that in a district their size equipment will always be under repair.

With just two and a half days left in the school year, two campuses in the San Antonio Independent School District closed Tuesday due to cooling issues.

In letters to parents, the principals of Bonham and Twain Academies said their air conditioning had broken down, and although repairs were underway, it would take a day for their campuses to cool enough for classes to resume.

The closures are a foreshadowing of what could come when school starts again in August.

At a recent budget meeting, SAISD trustees asked district leaders if they were prepared for a worst-case scenario: a district-wide breakdown of the chillers, similar to what happened to the boilers in January.

“Do we have what we need to survive that with what we have in inventory,” Board President Christina Martinez asked on May 20. “What would happen if we don't?”

Interim Operations Chief Jenny Arredondo told trustees her department now has a better idea of where the needs are because of the facility assessment conducted after the heaters failed. But she said the district is waiting on equipment to be delivered.

“I wish I could say that we had all of the equipment, but the reality is we don't,” Arredondo said. “But the good thing is we have a plan, and we also have a very good mitigation strategy to get our schools through.”

Arredondo told TPR she was unable to say whether or not the HVAC breakdowns in January contributed to the air conditioning problems the district is currently having.

The systems are so complex, and they do take a deep dive to be able to assess all of the units and the components. And it could be a multitude of things,” Arredondo said.

She added that the underlying problems that caused the heating to fail were also the reasons the district has struggled to keep classrooms cool for years.

“It's pretty much the same answer in the aging infrastructure and the condition of some of our units,” Arredondo said.

Superintendent Jaime Aquino pointed out that the HVAC report released a few weeks ago estimated it would take more than $300 million to make all of the needed repairs — way beyond what the district currently has budgeted. Although some of the cost is being paid for through the 2020 bond.

“Are we going to have some issues? Yes, we are,” Aquino said. “But we're trying to mitigate them so that it is in isolated places within a building as opposed to the crisis that we had before.”

SAISD is currently using 17 or 18 large temporary chillers to keep campuses cool until more permanent equipment arrives. Arredondo said the district started renting them a few months ago, and they are moved around as needed.

However, even one of those chillers recently broke down after a vandal stole copper wiring. And relatively new chillers are also breaking down.

“Unfortunately, what we have seen with some of our newer equipment is because they hadn't received the type of preventive maintenance that they should have been receiving they are aging earlier,” Arredondo said. “So, they've started showing signs of stress.”

One of the findings in the HVAC after-action report was that the district didn’t have a procedure in place to track and implement preventative maintenance. One of the commitments the district made after the report was released was to purchase a computer system to track maintenance within a year.

In the meantime, as SAISD waits on equipment held up with supply chain issues, district officials said they’re working out plans to move students to cooler parts of buildings when possible, and even identifying recently closed campuses that can be used to hold class so that schools don’t have to entirely shut down for the day.

“The reality is our summer temperatures are so extreme that every single campus needs to have a communication plan first thing with the parents and a mitigation plan. We shouldn't be waiting, and [Deputy Superintendent] Shawn [Bird] and I are working on that,” Deputy Superintendent Patti Salzmann said.

“We shouldn't be waiting until the rooms are hot, the kids are sweating, they feel like passing out, to ask, ‘What do we do now?’ We need to know on our campuses as the leader, 'where am I going to move students if that should come to pass? How fast do I need to contact? When do I need to escalate it, and what do I communicate to parents and when?' ”

Board President Christina Martinez asked district leaders to have campus-level plans to respond to cooling problems posted online and ready for families by the first day of school. District leaders promised they would.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Education News Desk, including H-E-B Helping Here, Betty Stieren Kelso Foundation and Holly and Alston Beinhorn.

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.