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L.A. Unified has almost 700 unresolved complaints about broken air conditioning

L.A. Unified has almost 700 unresolved complaints about broken air conditioning
Students at Lawrence Middle School in Chatsworth line up to go inside the gym in September, when it was too hot to exercise outside. (Los Angeles Times)

Jessica Melgoza is one of the lucky ones. A freshman at Banning High School's new firefighter magnet, the 14-year-old has a prime seat in her English class — right in front of one of two fans.

All Los Angeles Unified School District classrooms are supposed to have working air conditioning. But as of Monday, when temperatures crept above 100 degrees by early afternoon, L.A. Unified schools had almost 700 unresolved complaints about problems with air conditioning.

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Five, including two received Monday, came from Banning, located in Wilmington.

The current number of unresolved complaints is half of what the school system faced in mid-August, after school started, said Roger Finstad, L.A. Unified's director of maintenance and operations. For the most part, the temperatures this school year have been more forgiving than last year, he said.

"For us, that's a very modest backlog," Finstad said. The district has about 30,000 classrooms.

In Jessica's English class, she's surrounded by students complaining about how hot it is. She sweats so much, she says, that her hair sticks to her face and neck. In between classes, there are lines for the water fountain. She wishes the school had an indoor cafeteria, instead of a shaded area outside.

Some of Jessica's classes do have air conditioning. In those ones, she said, the relief on hot days is so great that she sometimes misses a teacher's directions because she's so busy enjoying the cool air.

But ultimately, she said, she pays more attention in the air-conditioned classes because she's more comfortable.

Last week, the Los Angeles Board of Education voted to begin edging the start of school closer to Labor Day, in part because of the August heat. Finstad said this shift wouldn't make much of a difference to the number of calls his office receives.

On Monday morning, the district sent out a heat advisory, directing administrators to a bulletin on ways to prevent heat stress, including limiting outdoor activity.

Jessica and her classmates still had physical training class Monday. They wore their navy blue uniform work pants and polo shirts and practiced marching and standing at attention outside.

On the other side of the city, at Portola Middle School in Tarzana, Principal Stephanie McClay implemented a "high heat schedule" for the fifth or sixth time this year, she said.

Students changed into their PE gear, but those classes were held in indoor, air-conditioned areas. No one was allowed to be out on the field at lunch. Teachers were encouraged to keep their doors closed to keep the air-conditioned air in, and to keep them unlocked at lunch so students would have a cool place to eat.

Students in the Long Beach Unified school system aren't promised air-conditioned classrooms. Only 33 of the district's 84 schools are fully equipped with it.

White shirt, hair tied up, full water bottle. That's how Toni Engberg sends her 6-year-old son to school on hot days. Colby Kukreja is a first-grader at Mark Twain Elementary School, which is not fully air-conditioned.

Last year, Engberg was one of the parents who started a petition to provide air conditioning at all 84 district schools, which could cost up to $700 million.

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Long Beach residents will vote on a bond measure on November's ballot that would fund that undertaking. In the meantime, Engberg takes solace in the fact that Colby gets out of school at 2:05 p.m., usually before the peak heat.

Her 12-year-old daughter, Alexis Kukreja, now attends Bancroft Middle School. There's air conditioning in most of her classes, and on the hottest days the PE teachers let them watch sports movies in the air conditioned auditorium, Alexis said. Monday's feature was "Space Jam."

A movie may not be the best physical education choice, but it's a welcome reprieve from the heat, Alexis said. She concentrates better in air-conditioned classrooms, and prepares for hot days by bringing two water bottles to school and buying a third at lunch.

"When I don't bring water to school and it's really hot, I get really bad headaches," Alexis said Monday afternoon. "Like right now, I have a headache."

Reach Sonali Kohli at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.

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