Solid solutions to the lack of air conditioning at various schools across the Thompson School District could be a ways off, officials with the district say.
Thompson School Board members were informed at their Nov. 3 meeting that a comprehensive plan to introduce cooling systems in schools that don’t currently have them would cost approximately $80 million.
“This is a topic that comes up every single year, it’s a Groundhog Day topic,” said Thompson Superintendent Marc Schaffer at the meeting. “We can talk about this ad nauseum each year. I guess what I’m seeking is some board direction on next steps.”
A pilot program implemented this year introduced small residential cooling units to a number of high-priority classrooms in buildings that are particularly hard-hit by heat, and temperature data collected by the district from those classrooms showed that their effect was negligible.
The question that the board now faces is whether the district should continue installing smaller cooling units that don’t do much to address the problem or look for ways to implement a project many times the district’s typical capital improvement budget.
For reference, in a given year, Chief Operating Officer Todd Piccone said the district has anywhere between $400,000 and $1 million to spend on capital projects, but added that figure could sometimes be less.
Options for tackling a project of that size are limited, mostly to grants or potential bond issues, Piccone said.
“I think this is very important for the public to hear, the $80 million number,” said Board Vice President Pam Howard. “Over the years, when we have put together the bond packages, air conditioning has always been part of the conversation. We have never really focused on it because it’s so massive. And sometimes I’ll see something in the Reporter Herald on the RH Line saying, ‘Why aren’t we air conditioning the schools for our kids and our teachers?’ And this is why.”
As it stands, a study session is tentatively planned for early next year, according to Piccone, after new directors elected at the beginning of this month are sworn in and have their bearing on the board.
Some cooling projects were tackled in the last bond package passed in 2018. For instance, a planned consolidation of Conrad Ball Middle School, Monroe Elementary and Mary Blair Elementary Schools into a single pre-K-8 campus at Conrad Ball included full air conditioning in the renovation plans.
“There’s been movement, just not enough to make a dent across the whole district,” Piccone told the Reporter-Herald on Monday.
Board member Dawn Kirk asked whether it would be possible to tackle the problem in smaller chunks, installing air conditioning in one or two buildings at a time over the course of several years.
Piccone said that was a possibility, but that costs would still be measured in the tens of millions of dollars.