New York City falling short on pledge to put AC in every classroom

This story was originally published on April 9 by THE CITY.

An effort Mayor Bill de Blasio launched two years ago to outfit every public school classroom with air conditioning appears further from the announced finish line than when it started — all because education officials can’t count, records show.

Meanwhile, costs are rising faster than temperatures in July.

Some 13,062 public school classrooms don’t have air conditioning — a count higher than the roughly 11,500 rooms that de Blasio said in April 2017 lacked cooling units, Department of Education officials confirmed to THE CITY.

He promised at the time the project would be completed by 2022. But DOE officials have since accelerated the completion date to 2021, despite the miscount.

A one-page memo provided by the DOE to the City Council in February — which included figures that DOE officials have since updated — reported that annual surveys of school space conducted by principals differed from “real-time conditions on the ground.”

DOE officials also said some specialized classrooms, such as science labs and art studios, were inadvertently excluded from the initial tally.

The revised figures have increased both the operational costs — from $28.7 million to $39.6 million — and the capital construction costs, which have grown nearly seven-fold from $50 million to $334 million, according to DOE officials and documents.

Officials said the capital funds are needed for electrical upgrades at 150 school buildings. But only five buildings have been completed — raising doubt among a number of elected officials about the fast-tracked completion date.

“I’m surprised that they have not gotten more work done,” said City Councilmember Daniel Dromm (D-Queens), a former public school teacher who chairs the Finance Committee. “I do know that it is an involved process, especially in the older schools…but certainly five is not a good number.”

Mixed Opinions on Timetable
State Assemblymember Mike Reilly (R-Staten Island), a former District 31 education council president, said he fully supports the air-conditioning plan. But he questioned a timeline that was pushed up from 2022 to 2021 — leaving just over two years to complete the work.

“I think two years is a little unrealistic,” said Reilly. “I think it’s something that’s going to cost us more money as well.”

DOE officials maintain the project is on schedule, with 3,658 out of the 16,720 classrooms that needed new A/C — or 22% — equipped with air conditioners by the end of March.
On the heavier lift of upgrading electrical systems at 150 school buildings, they said 136 of the projects are currently in design phase or being bid out — a process they expect to complete on a rolling basis by the end of the year.

“Students and staff deserve comfortable learning environments, and we are on track to complete every installation by 2021 and meet our yearly goals,” said Miranda Barbot, a DOE spokeswoman.

City Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn), who led a citywide advocacy campaign pushing for universal air conditioners under the banner #TooHotToLearn, said the increased costs are necessary to deal with a significant issue for both students and teachers.

“We have to do it, unless we have a plan to shorten the school year,” said Lander. “The kids and the teachers can’t function in those classrooms on hot days without air conditioners.”

Not far from his district, two-thirds of classrooms at sprawling Brooklyn Technical High School don’t have air conditioners, according DOE data submitted to the City Council. The school houses close to 6,000 students.

Hope for Relief
Still, Lander said he’s confident the School Construction Authority can complete the citywide work on time.

“I feel OK about it,” he said. “Do I wish they had gotten the better data earlier? Sure. But they accelerated the commitment from five years to four years — so that shows they’re serious.”

At a Dec. 18 City Council school construction hearing, education officials noted the sped-up timeline came at the urging of Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza.

After just a few months on the job, he had felt the heat firsthand during a tour of schools in an unusually hot and humid June last year, according to Deputy Schools Chancellor Karin Goldmark.

“He heard from students, he heard from parents and he actually every… time he went out of school he came back and said, ‘When are we getting finished with air conditioning again? Can we move that up, can we move that up?’ And he has been pushing hard for us to accelerate this,” Goldmark testified. “It’s definitely a priority.”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.