New A/C awaits teachers, students at 21 Hillsborough County schools

Some Hillsborough County teachers were pleasantly surprised when they returned to their classrooms for the first time Friday. The sweltering classrooms they left back in May are now chilled by fully functioning air conditioning systems.

The district spent the summer replacing or overhauling the AC units in 21 schools.

"I felt like my lucky stars had been aligned," said Linai Booker, who teaches at Walker Middle School, which had a new unit installed. "It's great because I don't have to worry about coming to work and then wondering if the air is working. It's a guarantee." 

Booker said the air conditioning handlers would constantly break down and then, as a result, so would the learning environment.

"It would get up to like 90 degrees," she said. "We want kids in school. We want them learning but we also want them to feel comfortable. And if a kid is not comfortable, there's no way learning is going to take place."

"I need them to focus and think and all they can really think about is the fact that they are dying of heat," added Amanda Morin, another teacher at Walker. "In some cases, outside is cooler than it actually is inside the classroom."

Voters heard the teachers' concerns and, in November, passed a half-cent sales tax to fund school improvements.

In addition to the AC repairs and replacements, the district is also in the process of replacing at least a dozen leaky roofs.

"Just in summer work alone, there's $60 million worth of work that's been done that's directly from that referendum, from that half-penny tax," said Chris Farkas, the deputy superintendent of operations.

There are still more than 180 schools that need air conditioning overhauls. Farkas said the district will work on at least 20 schools each summer for the next 10 years.

"The message I give them is, 'We will do all we can to do the repair and make sure that work is completed, you have a conducive learning environment this year.' But the reality is, whole replacements have to be summer replacements with HVAC," Farkas said.

More than 1,700 projects are scheduled during the next decade, including school and security improvements and playground replacements.