The future of air conditioning in Los Angeles schools

Nooria Retzer cools off at the Grand Park fountain in downtown L.A. during the heat wave.

Nooria Retzer cools off at the Grand Park fountain in downtown L.A. during the heat wave.

(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Unified received 1,499 complaints regarding problems with air conditioning alone from Tuesday through Sunday.

The district received the most complaints it had received in a single day all year—463—on Wednesday.

It was an extremely hot week in Los Angeles, with temperatures crawling above 100 degrees Fahrenheit at times. The district receives 60 to 80 calls regarding air conditioning on an average day without a heat wave, said Mark Cho, the district’s deputy director for maintenance and operations.

Those calls add up. Early last week, the district had a backlog of about 2,600 calls it had received about air conditioning but not resolved. The district completed 650 service requests from Tuesday through Sunday. The backlog climbed to 3,277 as of Monday morning.

Between 1% and 2% of the district’s classrooms don’t have fully functioning air conditioning, Cho said. That may not seem like a lot, but in a district with about 30,000 classrooms, that translates to between 300 and 600 classrooms without working air conditioning.

It’s a problem the district is aware of and is trying to address. Many air-conditioning systems are old, and the district’s older schools don’t have the infrastructure to handle modern AC systems, Cho said.

The long-term fix is to completely redesign and rebuild AC systems in a number of Los Angeles schools, which the district has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to doing. In most cases, the costs per school range from less than $1 million to $10 million.

The most expensive revamp is a $21-million project at Richard E. Byrd Middle School in Sun Valley, where the mascot, very ironically, is a penguin. It is supposed to be completed by April 2018.

Here is a rundown of the district's AC projects. The purple are completed, the green are in construction, the blue are awaiting approval from the state, the pink are in the design phase, and the white are in planning.

The district plans to recommend the board of education approve spending on more of these revamps, Cho said.

Meanwhile, parents in Long Beach, the state’s third-largest district with about 80,000 students and 85 schools, have started a petition for air conditioning in every classroom. It has more than 9,000 signees after less than a week.

The district sent an email to parents and employees on Friday explaining that 33 of the district’s schools, about 39%, do have air conditioning in every classroom.

“Many of our schools were built in the 1950s or earlier and simply do not have the electrical infrastructure to handle air conditioning,” read the email, from Long Beach schools Supt. Christopher Steinhauser. “The standards for school construction and renovation are very high, and thus much more costly and labor intensive than residential construction.”

It could cost as much as $700 million to make the necessary changes to provide air conditioning to all classrooms in Long Beach schools, a move that probably would require a bond measure that voters would need to approve, Steinhauser wrote.

“It was over 95 degrees in my office last week,” said Susan Bobadilla, a librarian at Lakewood High School in Long Beach Unified. Bobadilla taught history and economics at the school for four years in classrooms without air conditioning, and she said it was unbearable at times.

Her classroom last year had four ceiling fans and three additional fans, but all they did was circulate hot air, she said. Many teachers have bought digital thermometers to keep track of the heat.

Students, especially the ones who had afternoon classes after a lunch spent outside, found it hard to concentrate or engage in any interactive learning, Bobadilla said.

“It’s brutal,” Bobadilla said, “and I don’t think it’s a fair learning environment for the students.” 

Reach Sonali Kohli on Twitter @sonali_kohli or by email at