Wichita teachers, students feeling heat after budget cuts

Children read in the Christa McAuliffe Academy library during summer latchkey July 7.
Children read in the Christa McAuliffe Academy library during summer latchkey July 7. The Wichita Eagle

Many teachers, parents and students in the Wichita school district say classrooms are uncomfortably warm this year after district officials set thermostats higher to cut utility costs.

“It’s just hot and miserable a lot of the time,” said Angie Collinsworth, a parent of two students and a lunchroom aide at Christa McAuliffe Academy in Wichita.

“My seventh-grader … was like, ‘I don’t know how they expect us to learn math in these conditions.’

“She thought she was going to pass out the second day of school.”

As part of an effort to cut energy costs this year, the district set all school thermostats to 76 degrees and are enforcing the set point more stringently than past years, said Ken Hinkle, director of facilities for Wichita schools.

During off hours and weekends – from the time students are released until one hour before school starts – thermostats are set back to 85 degrees, Hinkle said.

Previously, thermostats were set at 76 degrees but teachers had more leeway to adjust them up or down in their classrooms, Hinkle said.

The change, projected to save about $600,000, has led to stuffy, humid classrooms in parts of the district. Some Wichita teachers have posted photos on social media showing classroom temperatures as high as 86 degrees.

Hinkle said his staff is working on a list of 125 work orders where principals or others have reported hotter-than-usual temperatures. Crews are investigating each report, he said, making sure systems are working properly and repairing them or adjusting thermostats if necessary.

“We’re doing our best. We’re trying, and I know that it’s hot in some of the buildings,” Hinkle said.

“We’re doing experiments at buildings, looking at different options. We’ve had engineers come talk to us … to try to come up with a good set point across the district that might be the most energy efficient.”

At Christa McAuliffe Academy, a K-8 school that opened four years ago in southeast Wichita, Collinsworth recently led a PTO effort to collect fans and distribute them to teachers. The group rounded up 32 fans, which are now helping circulate air in classrooms, she said.

“They say it’s made a big difference,” Collinsworth said.

Steve Wentz, president of the Wichita teachers union, said his staff has received calls from teachers and other school employees complaining about hot classrooms.

Higher thermostats combined with longer school days – particularly in older buildings and classrooms with west-facing windows – has affected many teachers and students, he said. The school day is 30 minutes longer in Wichita this year, which means most elementary schools don’t release students until 4:40 p.m.

“At some point, if sweat is dripping down your forehead and onto your math paper, it’s going to affect your concentration,” Wentz said. “If you’re uncomfortable, it makes everything that much more difficult.”

Before a bond issue in 2000 paid to air-condition school buildings in Wichita, the district employed heat contingency plans, releasing students earlier during the late summer to avoid afternoon heat.

“All the old-timers out there who say, ‘Back in my day, we didn’t even have air-conditioning,’ they don’t realize how some of these buildings are designed,” Wentz said. “You can’t just open a window and run a fan to keep the air going. If the air-conditioning isn’t operating at the level it’s designed to work at, it gets pretty warm pretty quickly.”

Now all Wichita schools are air-conditioned, Hinkle said, but many have cooling systems that don’t adequately control humidity. The 76-degree set point is giving district officials a baseline to work from, he said.

He also encourages teachers to keep classroom doors closed to keep cool air from escaping into hallways.

“We’ve learned a lot in this process,” Hinkle said. “We’ve been in bond mode for 17 years now, and we have not had the opportunity or the time to really spend time on preventative maintenance.

“What this has forced us into a little bit, with the work orders, is to get out and do preventative maintenance and just stay on top of things a little better. But I also understand what the teachers and principals and everybody are going through.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias