POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – In the days since the Polk Education Association filed a class action grievance, the number of schools reportedly with air conditioning issues has grown from 15 to 51.
“As this got more attention and more coverage, our members started reaching out saying, ‘Hey, we need to add our school. Our school’s having AC issues too. We’ve put in work orders’,” Polk Education Association president Stephanie Yocum said.
At Southwest Elementary School in Lakeland, an entire building of classrooms, one kindergarten classroom, the cafeteria, and the principal’s office are without air conditioning, the teachers’ union said.
“My second grader said it’s disgusting,” said Aimee Dearing, who has two children who attend Southwest Elementary School.
Her children’s classrooms have air conditioning but not the cafeteria, where they eat lunch and wait for 45 minutes to be picked up from school.
“It doesn’t make sense to me why this is such an issue right now. It should have been handled over the months where kids weren’t in there,” Dearing said.
Rather than have the children sit in a hot cafeteria, Dearing said the parent-teacher organization spent $1,000 to purchase three mobile A/C units for the cafeteria and classrooms, if necessary.
“Which we’re happy to do but also that shouldn’t fall on us to spend money we’ve earned fundraising for the kids to air condition our buildings,” Dearing added.
A Polk County Public Schools spokesperson said crews worked through the weekend and are making progress on an above-average number of work orders.
The spokesperson sent 8 On Your Side this list last Thursday of action items the district was taking to address the air conditioning issue:
- HVAC technicians and additional teams of maintenance staff are being deployed to schools to assess and prioritize work orders.
- All available portable A/C systems are being deployed from our inventory and will be used first in critical areas, such as portables and interior classrooms.
- We are authorizing overtime pay for staff to handle work orders, including on nights and weekends.
- PCPS-contracted vendors will be assisting with larger projects such as installing new A/C units and ductwork.
- We are constantly working to upgrade the HVAC equipment in our schools. Approximately $6 million has been spent to purchase more than 500 new A/C units. Installation is taking place as soon as possible.
- Students in classrooms without working A/C will be relocated to other areas on campus until fixes are made.
Yocum said she and the union were not aware these steps were being taken until the media reported it.
“Communicate with your principals and your school sites and your staff about ‘hey, this is where we’re at.’ But the district is like crickets. And they were crickets before we filed this grievance and then they had to respond to the media,” she said.
Yocum said a meeting is scheduled Friday at the district office to address the class action grievance she filed last week.
She said the initial grievance meeting is an “internal mechanism for conflict resolution.”
Along with the need to address the current A/C issues, Yocum wants assurances the issue will not happen again.
“We need a fleshed-out plan of how they’re going to handle AC throughout the summer when teachers aren’t here. We are not happy with the thermostats being set arbitrarily at 72 degrees,” Yocum said.
She added that thermostats, which are set by the district, should be at 68 degrees.