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Too Cool for School

Dozens of public schools in Oakland went without heat for weeks at a time in the past month or two.



On January 5, the first day back from winter break, the principal of Oakland's Emiliano Zapata Street Academy high school called up the district and threatened to cancel classes until the heat was turned on in her frigid school.

"What I was going to do was close the school," said Principal Patricia Williams-Myrick. "It's unfair to students and staff. You can't very well function if you're freezing to death."

The ultimatum worked, and shortly thereafter workers showed up to turn on the boilers. It had taken over a month of requests from the principal, but by the day's end, the school was nice and toasty.

Like scores of other schools throughout the district, Street Academy hadn't had heat all year, even as daytime temperatures dropped into the low forties in the weeks preceding winter break. And while students and teachers had grown accustomed to wearing multiple layers and watching their breath rise, most assumed that the district's maintenance crew would finally get around to turning on the school's boilers before the end of the two-week vacation. But, upon entering the ice box of a building that Monday, it became overtly clear that such was not the case.

"I was told there was a shortage of personnel to go out to schools," said Williams-Myrick, recalling her initial conversations with the district's Buildings and Grounds department in the late fall. "That's all well and good, but that's not my problem. ... Being cold, I can't function, so the students and staff can't function."

Williams-Myrick was told that her school was among many with the same problem this year. Fixing the heat in elementary schools was the first priority. She said she was promised a delivery of space heaters for the classrooms in the interim, but those never arrived.

"I told students to dress accordingly — gloves and scarves," she said. "Sometimes you just learn how to cope."

The principal of another heatless Oakland school, who wished to remain anonymous, reported speaking to a switch board operator at Buildings and Grounds in December, and was told that 32 district schools were having heating problems, resulting in a logjam of work orders.

Most of the district's school sites have boilers that have to be reset each winter. It's a generally routine procedure, but one that requires the work of a skilled technician, called a steamfitter, of which the district employs a total of four. This year, however, two steamfitters were out on extended leave, reducing the ranks by half, according to OUSD's Buildings and Ground's Director Leroy Stokes. That makes two steamfitters for more than 150 school sites. Stokes couldn't confirm the number of schools left in the cold, but said that many of the sites only lacked heat in part of the buildings, not the whole site. In some sites, he added, the boilers and heating equipment are quite old and replacement parts had to be ordered, taking additional time.

"Now we're managing it," said Stokes, who noted that three outside contractors were recently hired on a temporary basis to get the schools back to core temperature. He said that things were also a bit more complicated this year because, for the first time he could remember, district managers order him to turn off all working boilers during the winter break in order to save on energy costs.

"We were trying to do some energy conservation," Stokes said. "It was a new experience for us. I believe it probably saved in costs."

Stokes said that the problems were resolved a good deal faster last year, but noted that he's has been dealing with personnel cutbacks for some time, and that inevitably results in slower service. The 1980's, he added, were the golden years for his department, when he had thirteen techs on his crew.

OUSD has long been burdened by its reputation of underperforming schools and scant finances. But, despite rough times, the basic essentials, like heat, have generally been assumed as a given. And while attention and resources have often recently been directed towards new technologies and professional development endeavors in schools, the literal nuts and bolts of site maintenance, including janitorial services, seem to sometimes be pushed to the back burner.

In the more than thirty years that Principal Williams-Myrick has been at her school, she's faced her share of work-related tribulations and isn't fazed by much. But Williams-Myrick said she's never seen anything like this before. Sure, in some years the heat had gone off for a few days at a time, but never for weeks on end. "For the most part, it's been taken care of right away."

Williams-Myrick said the dearth in maintenance staff and lack of reliable service is all the product of a district that's grown out of touch with the schools they're trying to manage. "They don't really know what's going on," she said. "They don't have a plan. What's really important is the kids, and that seems to have gotten away. They talk the talk, but they don't walk the walk."

The constant flux in leadership and excessively large administrative staff downtown, she added, acerbates the problem. "Every time there's someone new, the whole plan changes again," Williams-Myrick said. "That's where I'm saying more resources should be designated actually for the schools, not downtown where there are too many people. It's a confusing situation."

Up until winter break, only two classrooms at the Oakland International School in Temescal had heat, which instantly made them the most popular places on campus, according to Principal Carmelita Reyes. After entering a work order on January 3 into the district's computer system, Reyes said she received an e-mail during vacation that said the problem had been fixed. "But it hadn't," she said. The heat only began fully functioning during the middle of the first week of January, when workers came in and quickly remedied the problem.

"Everyone was wearing layers upon layers of clothes," she said. "Sometimes it was warmer outside."

For Reyes' school, the lack of early winter heat has become an annual occurrence, she said. Last year, the gas was turned off for two months due to a leak in the gas line coming into the school, which in addition to having no heat, also resulted in cafeteria workers not being able to use the ovens to warm up food for students.

Reyes noted that many of her kids, who are recently arrived immigrants from mostly warm climates, didn't even know they could complain. "They don't know how to advocate for their rights or what they're rights even are."

Her sentiments are similar to that of Williams-Myrick and a number of other principals, who have had to spend a significant amount of unanticipated time addressing basic site maintenance issues in addition to their myriad management responsibilities. Reyes described a meeting of principals in December at West Oakland Middle School, yet another site that didn't have heat that month. "We were all freezing." No one has the full staff they need, Reyes said, noting that it should be standard practice for the district to hire whatever temporary maintenance staff it needs by November, rather than waiting till the work orders have already piled up and the kids are shivering in class.

"It's cutbacks," Reyes said. "This isn't just Buildings and Grounds' fault. We're all running a school district as leanly as we can. It's a skeleton crew, and when we hit cold weather, there are lots of problems."

Back at Street Academy, the heat is now cranking and students have already grown accustomed to peeling off layers as they enter the building. Asked if they seemed grateful for the reliable warmth, Williams-Myrick sighed: "Now kids are talking about how it's too hot."

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