An uphill climb gets a little tougher after the St. Joseph School District revealed that its two newest elementary schools are among those with inadequate HVAC systems.
District officials talked ominously of millions of dollars in upgrades that could be needed to address heating and cooling issues in some of its facilities. At Pickett Elementary, temperatures in certain rooms only reached the high 50s last week, but the biggest shock came with word that the two newest elementary schools were built with undersized cooling units.
Oak Grove and Carden Park opened to much praise in 2014, when the district unveiled its first new school buildings in decades following a voter-approved bond issue. The HVAC deficiencies could be traced to the earliest discussions on the bond issue in 2012, when the Board of Education authorized a lower-cost air conditioning option that allowed enough savings to build two new grade schools, rather than just one.
Current board members seemed eager to blame past district leadership for bad planning and poor decisions. They have a case, but it’s hard to digest today’s HVAC woes without looking ahead to the future, rather than to the past.
The public is justified in demanding to know why they should approve construction of one or more new high schools if flaws already are emerging in the two most recent district additions. It’s a question this board should be ready to answer, and indeed its members can answer it in a way that doesn’t kill a future bond issue’s chances.
They will, however, need to do better than saying they’re not like all those board members and administrators who came before them. Yes, the current situation shows the peril of cutting corners on new projects and deferring maintenance on older building stock. It also shows the risk of crafting bond issues around surveys of what voters will support, rather than convincing voters of what the community might need.
But more than that, the concern over HVAC repair costs shows that this board will need to emphasize long-term operational cost savings in any future bond issue that involves construction or renovation of high school facilities.
We know new construction will be costly. We know that enrollment projections make it harder to justify three high schools in aging facilities, but voters will recoil at a campaign that focuses solely on gloom-and-doom scenarios of a community in decline. What we don’t know are the specifics on how more modern facilities will allow for savings and efficiencies, spread out over time.
A costly HVAC fix should give the board members and district officials reason to sweat, but it also offers a chance to change the conversation in a way that focuses attention on why new facilities are needed in the first place.