With an excessive heat warning in effect until 8 p.m. Tuesday for Los Angeles County, the extreme heat has raised concerns among Santa Clarita Valley community members about their high school students and whether facilities have adequate air conditioning.
The National Weather Service forecasted high temps for the week, with temperatures rising between 100 and 110 degrees. Amid the heat, William S. Hart Union High School District officials are working to ensure students and staff stay safe and cool.
“We’re experiencing a record-breaking heat wave now in Southern California, and it is pushing our systems to the limit,” said Ralph Pesheck, assistant superintendent of business services for the Hart district. “As with all electrical and mechanical systems, the harder you run them, the more chance of failure.”
According to Pesheck, the Hart district has a maintenance and operation supervisor, and three HVAC technicians on staff, who are “out in the heat every day tackling work orders as they come in.”
Collyn Nielsen, assistant superintendent of human resources, said the district usually has a certain number of units that need some attention.
The district also has a work order system in place, where a staff member first notifies their assistant principal or head custodian, then places a work order indicating something’s not right with their unit.
The order goes to the plant manager or the head custodian for the school, who would take a closer look to see if the unit could be fixed there and then, or if it’s beyond their capability of fixing it. If a unit needs serious repairs, it gets escalated to the district maintenance and operations department, Nielsen said.
“We fire them a couple of weeks before school starts to make sure that everything is running,” Nielsen said. “But even doing that, there will be some problems that crop up that we need to address while school is in session.”
John Minkus, president of the Hart District Teachers Association, addressed the Hart district governing board in mid-August with concerns from teachers districtwide regarding room temperatures, and failed, faulty or less-than-functioning air conditioning units.
Teachers reported about some failing HVAC units on different school sites, and according to Minkus, the district responded that units had been checked prior to the start of school and deemed properly functional.
“When I asked about the number of problems, the answer was that with 30-plus students in rooms, and 100-plus-degree temperatures outside the units were being overtaxed,” he said, during the governing board meeting on Aug. 18.
“When rumblings of all staff revolve around this issue for different reasons, and students bemoan this inappropriate condition, there needs to be corrective action taken to avoid this far-too-common problem in the future.”
Some system failures required district officials to order new parts, and as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the issue has been exacerbated due to supply chain issues.
Pesheck said the district works to the best of its ability to address issues or work orders related to HVAC units as timely and best they can.
“It’s taking a little longer sometimes to get those parts in. Those are kind of the classrooms that you might be starting to hear some folks expressing concerns,” Pesheck said.
According to Pesheck, this week in particular, school site administrators are creative in ensuring students and staff are in rooms with working air conditioning.
“Each one of our school sites, principals, where we have issues that go beyond a day or two, try to find alternative classroom assignments for those teachers and move them around,” Pesheck said.
For example, at one of the school sites, an art teacher could not teach in her regular room because the HVAC unit needs repairs, but the district is waiting on “big, expensive parts.” School administration asked the teacher to teach in their lab space, and they did.
“Teachers are working with administration to support each other, and try to get students and staff into comfortable environments,” Pesheck said.
In addition, this week in particular, parents raised concerns about student athletes playing and practicing in their respective school gymnasiums with no air conditioning.
“That is correct,” Pesheck said. “When the schools were designed and built, that’s going back decades, for most of our schools, that wasn’t really a consideration in the design of those schools.”
“We do not have gyms with HVAC.”
The only school site with HVAC is La Mesa Junior High School, he added.
Jamey Kerr, head coach of West Ranch girls’ volleyball, said his thought on air conditioning is simple: They should have it.
Kerr reiterated that he is not criticizing the district or the school. He loves his school, the district and the community, but he does think the district should look into HVAC units for gymnasiums districtwide.
“Most of the schools that we play against in our season, those schools have either air conditioning, or live in a place that doesn’t require them to have air conditioning,” Kerr said. “It’s actually become relatively difficult for us to procure preseason matches against out-of-town teams because they don’t really want to come and play in our gyms.”
“Ultimately, my goal is to hopefully help the district in any way I can, in my small role,” Kerr said. “I know that a lot of parents are hoping to help the district in any way they can because it’s somewhat a necessity at this point.”
Kerr, who attended Valenica High School from 2005 to 2008, said he knows the gyms like the back of his hand. According to Kerr, practicing in gyms with no air conditioning is something that you get used to, but it doesn’t mean you should.
“This is just about improving upon the success we’ve already seen as a district and as a valley, and trying to make us as great as we can,” Kerr said.
According to Pesheck, the district is looking at this issue as a health and safety concern.
“It is a $10 million project over multiple years, and that’s something we would have to come to the community and ask them to support additional funding directly to the Hart district to help us get there,” Neilsen said.
Due to the heat wave, the district canceled volleyball matches that were scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday because of the lack of air conditioning and high temperatures.
“With what we’re experiencing this week, and what we’re seeing with the drought, and the drying up of some of the big reservoirs and lakes in the western portion of the United States,” Neilsen said, “this has become more of an active conversation.”