Empty (or, at least, emptier) as school buildings may be in the summer, it remains a busy time — for teachers, coaches, maintenance staff and many more individuals who utilize the facilities while class is not in session.
In particular, that window offers an opportunity to address maintenance issues that need to be taken care of before the start of the next school year. While that is still a couple of months off for USD 373, there is one such maintenance issue that has become a pressing matter at Newton High School and one that could potentially have an impact on the beginning of the 2018-2019 academic year.
On May 16, before the end of the most recent academic semester, the compressor on the air conditioning unit at Newton High School failed, the result of normal wear and tear according to Ron Henrich, interim facilities director for USD 373.
"It's at about the end of its life expectancy," Henrich said.
The air conditioning system, original to the building, stalled previously in 1995. When the new compressor was installed at that time, it came with a projected lifespan of 20 years. Having that information, district administration knew repair work may be imminent and began discussing options in 2013, according to USD 373 superintendent Deb Hamm — though that discussion has not gotten easier since it started.
"Our choices are repair the unit that we currently have, and deal with the fact that in three years we will have difficulty finding refrigerant (which will no longer be manufactured) or at least paying a higher price for it than we're currently paying ... or replacing the chiller with new chillers — which would have been part of a bond project anyway. We were already going to be headed down that road," Hamm said. "The really bad part is that none of these solutions are going to be quick fixes. In other words, even if we decide to repair the unit that we have it will take a considerable amount of time to do that, so we may not have permanent air conditioning when school starts at the beginning of the year."
While those options are weighed, staff who normally utilize the building over the summer months are making due.
Some portions of the high school (namely the newer sections) continue to have air conditioning, but a majority of the high school — about 80 percent — was serviced by the unit with the failed compressor.
To keep the temperature down at the high school, those using the facilities are being encouraged to circulate outside air when it's cool enough.
Mostly, the air conditioning issues affects cleaning and repairs — as Hamm noted any summer camps that would normally be held at NHS could be moved to other buildings (like Chisholm Middle School) if need be — but there are some operations that it could be a hinderance to.
"I think the most difficult part, probably, is the fact that there isn't air conditioning in the kitchen and we still have summer meals going on, so our folks that work in service during the summer are working in very unpleasant conditions," Hamm said. "Most of their work is in the morning, but still, I'm sure it gets warms in there."
Price estimates are still being gathered for repair work and are in the very preliminary stages at this point, but Hamm noted in an effort to expedite the necessary work she is hoping to bring a proposal before the Board of Education at its next meeting on June 18.
Getting started on the work as soon as possible is key because of the number of factors that can delay that timeline, like the fact that the air conditioning units need to be specially manufactured.
"You have to send them what you want and they build it custom for the building that you're putting them in," Hamm said. "It's an eight-week turnaround. If you do the countdown, we're mid-June and eight weeks from now is going to be mid-August and we're starting school."
Other factors (i.e. checking on insurance coverage) have delayed the current work timeline as well. As such, Hamm said the district is looking into getting temporary air conditioning units as one possible interim solution for the start of the next school year, while morning sessions — a tactic that was used when there were issues during the stall in 1995 — may also be under consideration.
Though there are contingency funds set aside to help out with such cases, the fact that air conditioning was a part of the recent bond issue speaks to the scale of repairs needed. Hamm also credited the maintenance staff for keeping the current system running as long as it has, and likened the district's current situation at the high school to that of upkeep with a personal vehicle — you maintain it, put oil in it, rotate the tires, etc., but after a while it just doesn't run anymore.
"I think we have to face the fact that there are major needs at the high school," Hamm said, "and we need to get behind finding a solution to how we're going to deal with them."