In Twin Rivers schools, some wear blankets for warmth

Hundreds of students in the Twin Rivers Unified School District returned to their classrooms Monday with only portable space heaters for warmth.

Grant Union High School is so cold that students regularly wear blankets with sleeves, such as “Snuggies,” to stay warm inside classrooms, said parent Sascha Vogt. At Woodlake Elementary School, students huddled under blankets and sleeping bags after a copper theft in October damaged the heating system, she said.

Concerns about frigid Twin Rivers classrooms escalated in December when temperatures dipped into the mid-20s and Sacramento experienced its coldest month since 1990 based on an average of overnight lows, according to the National Weather Service.

District officials acknowledge that many of their classrooms lack functional heating systems and attribute the problem to aging facilities with units badly in need of repair and replacement. They say they are doing their best to keep up with repairs despite a lack of facilities money in the north Sacramento area district that serves 31,600 students.

During particularly hot or cold days, teachers have taken to emailing pictures of their classroom thermostats to their union leaders, said Kristin Finney, president of Twin Rivers United Educators. One photo from early December reads 44 degrees. Another from Grant Union High School in September shows a 91-degree temperature.

Anger over the lack of heat and air conditioning in classrooms peaked after parents learned the district had organized a 100-day celebration of Superintendent Steven Martinez’s tenure in November. The invitation-only breakfast was held at the Aerospace Museum of California in North Highlands.

Vogt brought a petition to the school board on Dec. 10 with some 800 signatures under the heading “Before you have a party, please provide heat for all our students.”

“We are going to make necessary repairs,” Martinez said before winter break. The district has hired an outside company which is working around the clock to fix the problem, he said. “We’re not trying to make an excuse.”

The district fixed the damaged heating system at Woodlake Elementary in mid-December. On Friday, district officials reported that about 80 heating units had been repaired over winter break, lowering the number of classrooms without heating units to 30.

“It’s wonderful news,” said Kim Barnett, interim chief business officer for the district. “They have been working really hard for the last three weeks.”

New heating and air conditioning systems, purchased for Grant Union High in summer 2010, remain uninstalled after district personnel realized they would have to retrofit the roof. District officials now say the work will be completed in April.

“There were kids that came (to Grant) as freshmen and are seniors now, and they never had heat and air,” said Gregory Jefferson of the Del Paso Heights Community Association.

The effort to keep heating and air conditioning units working at Twin Rivers Unified is ongoing, Barnett said. Some of the units are so old parts can’t be found, she said.

“As we fix a couple of these, more go out,” she said.

The Twin Rivers board in September approved $1 million in emergency money out of district reserves to fix heating and cooling problems. Martinez said the district will hire two or three heating and air conditioning technicians – positions that were eliminated in previous layoffs. He said the district also will put aside $1 million annually for continued maintenance and replacement of HVAC units.

Another $10 million to $15 million – generated by the recent refinancing of a district bond – will be used for other renovation projects, including the replacement of heating and air conditioning units. Martinez said that larger projects like the renovation of Harmon Johnson Elementary School and Grant Union High School will be completed later, when state funding is available.

Martinez said most school districts have a mix of old and new campuses, so maintenance can be staggered. Not so at Twin Rivers Unified, where every school needs an upgrade, repair or renovation. Grant Union High School, the district’s oldest school, was built in 1934. Most of the district’s schools were built in the 1950s and 1960s, with a handful built in the last 20 years.

It will probably cost $200 million to completely modernize the district’s schools, said Terry Bradley, a consultant hired by the district. Besides heating and air conditioning, schools need to update their water and sewer systems, repave parking lots, repaint and put in new roofs, among other things. The district is currently working on a plan to prioritize needed projects.

Some parents have questioned how the district spent $230 million in Measure G bond money approved by voters in the former Grant Union School District in 2006. “We are in the process of gathering the information to find out where the money was spent,” Martinez said.

With no local bond money left, Twin Rivers officials say they have to wait for state funding before moving on to most major projects. Martinez said the district may be able to leverage some funds from Proposition 39, a 2012 corporate tax measure that generates money for energy efficiency projects at schools, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. But for major projects, the district may need California voters to pass a new schools construction bond.

Sacramento City Unified also has aging schools in need of maintenance and “woefully insufficient” funds in its deferred maintenance account, according to district officials. City voters approved Measure Q in 2012 to authorize $346 million in bonds for school modernization projects, but district spokesman Gabe Ross said that help will not come immediately.

“When we have extreme weather, our units – especially the older ones – do not operate at full capacity,” Ross said. “Our maintenance staff works hard to mitigate any HVAC issues when they arise so that any issues are minimal.”

Five to seven of the district’s rooms have broken heating systems and rely on space heaters, he said.

Elk Grove Unified, the area’s largest district, said it does not have any rooms with heating problems and is not using space heaters.

Union leader Finney doesn’t blame current Twin Rivers Unified leadership for the problems. “Honestly, it’s been poor management in the past by district people and the past board,” Finney said. “Not enough money was spent where it should have been spent. I think it’s been the biggest issue in the district since consolidation.”

But parents like Vogt said the district’s new leaders spend too much time blaming the past administration and not enough time fixing the problems. Vogt pointed to the 2004 Williams settlement, which resolved a lawsuit contending that low-income students lacked equal access to school facilities and materials. Under the agreement, the state and counties are required to hold low-performing districts more accountable and fund upgrades. Districts must provide a complaint process; Vogt has filed two Williams complaints with Twin Rivers.

“Even if he doesn’t have the money to fix it, the education code requires it,” Vogt said, referring to district superintendent Martinez. “It’s compulsory. They shouldn’t be violating their (students’) civil rights.”

Vogt contacted state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who met with Martinez in December along with Sacramento City Councilman Allen Warren and Assemblyman Roger Dickinson. Steinberg representative Russell Stiger said the district’s work on the heating and air conditioning problem was already underway when the senator got involved.

“Parents want a quick fix and (the district) had to order specific things,” Stiger said. “The parts started coming in recently. More things have been fixed in the last six months than have been fixed in the last five years.”

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