State leaders demand heat repairs at Twin Rivers

State leaders are calling on Twin Rivers Unified School District officials to ensure that all of their students have heat in their classrooms.

Hundreds of students in the north Sacramento area district returned to cold classrooms Monday with broken heaters, The Sacramento Bee reported this week. They have relied on everything from space heaters to sleeping bags to stay warm.

“That’s got to be fixed,” Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said Tuesday at an education press conference when asked about the issue. “Obviously, kids need to learn in an environment where they’re not cold. That was very discouraging to me.”

“It’s got to be fixed and it’s got to be fixed now,” he added.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson echoed Steinberg’s remarks.

“We can’t have a learning environment like that – that is cold,” Torlakson said at the same event.

Parents and teachers said that heating and air conditioning units in the district have been dormant at some Twin Rivers schools for years. When students left in December for winter break, over 110 classrooms had broken units. District leaders said they had worked hard in recent weeks to repair heaters and that by the end of break the tally was down to 30.

District officials did not provide an update Wednesday on whether the number of cold classrooms has fallen further.

Though Steinberg indicated Tuesday he would speak soon to Twin Rivers Superintendent Steven Martinez, the senator “hasn’t had a chance to circle back and touch base with the superintendent,” according to Steinberg spokesman Mark Hedlund.

Steinberg, Sacramento City Councilman Allen Warren and Assemblyman Roger Dickinson previously met with Martinez in December to discuss the issue after being contacted by parents. Martinez took over as superintendent in July.

“I’ve met him,” Steinberg said. “I have faith in him. He’s new.”

Torlakson said school districts have struggled with budget cuts since the recession.

“Schools, you know, were in emergency status for four years, five years running, many with deferred maintenance and a lot of issues that they couldn’t address,” Torlakson said. “We need to look at the need to replenish the state bond account on modernization and rehabilitation. The voters have consistently supported bond measures – that’s another part of something we can look at as an investment – so that we can have some long-range dollars to help with the infrastructure in our schools.”

Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, plans to introduce a bill to place a statewide education bond on the November 2014 ballot, her office said Wednesday. Other education bond proposals have already been introduced.

Frigid classrooms in the winter and hot classrooms in the summer have been a common complaint since Twin Rivers Unified, which serves 31,600 students, formed in 2008 in a merger of four smaller districts. Concerns escalated in December when overnight temperatures dipped as low as 26 degrees.

District officials attribute the problem to aging facilities with heating and air conditioning units badly in need of repair and replacement. Teachers union president Kristin Finney said that she has received only one complaint in the three days since classes resumed after winter break.

“We’re trying to put a Band-Aid on it,” said school board member Michael Baker.

He said the previous administrators and school board members “weren’t proactive” about maintaining school facilities.

Linda Fowler, a trustee since the district merged in 2007, said the district ran out of money as it attempted to bring all of its schools “up to par.”

She blamed union leaders for balking at outsourced labor that could have completed the necessary repairs.

“It was too much work for them to do,” she said of district staff. “They put us in a bind to do things effectively and efficiently when we needed them.”

She said, however, that “things aren’t quite so hard to get done now.”

Martinez said recently he will use $1 million in emergency money released in September to fix heating and cooling problems, and he will hire two to three additional HVAC technicians. He said the district will also put aside $1 million annually for continued maintenance and replacement of heating and air conditioning units. Another $10 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.

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