Despite cold classrooms, 140 HVAC units sat idle at Twin Rivers

As Twin Rivers Unified School District students shivered in cold classrooms, 140 brand-new HVAC units worth $3 million sat idle for years.

Fifty-three heating, ventilation and air-conditioning units languished on a campus that never opened. Dozens of units purchased for aging Grant Union High School were never installed and remain in storage.

A 60-ton HVAC machine lies dormant in an open field, scarred by vandals.

“It’s disgusting to me,” said Christine Jefferson, a Del Paso Heights Community Association member. “Why do we have them in storage? Isn’t the warranty tick, tick, ticking away?”

Teachers and parents in the north Sacramento area district have long raised concerns about uncomfortable classroom temperatures due to broken heating and cooling equipment. Complaints crescendoed in December when nighttime temperatures dipped into the 20s and parents said students in some classrooms resorted to using sleeping bags and blankets to stay warm.

Twin Rivers officials say that since the beginning of the school year, they have fixed or replaced HVAC units serving 349 classrooms out of 1,640 districtwide. On Jan. 20, only one work order remained, although district officials say that number can change daily as aging systems fail and need repair.

Superintendent Steven Martinez, who took the job July 1, said he wasn’t aware of the unused HVAC units until the district conducted a facilities assessment in November.

“We will not be in the same position come the fall of 2014,” Martinez said.

Twin Rivers formed in 2008 after voters approved a merger of four north Sacramento area school districts: Rio Linda Union, Del Paso Heights, North Sacramento and Grant Joint Union High. Supporters argued that a combined district, which now serves 31,000 students, would operate more efficiently.

The district purchased 38 HVAC units for Grant Union High School in April 2012, using funds from a $230 million bond measure that voters in the former Grant district approved in 2006. Community members hoped the $630,000 purchase would resolve longstanding climate-control problems at the 82-year-old campus.

Previous district administrators said there was no money to install the units, according to Grant Principal Darris Hinson. The district has paid a total of $17,000 to store the units since October 2012.

Jefferson, a retired Grant Union High employee, has been a regular presence at board meetings over the last two years, demanding the board fix the heat and air at the school.

“The sad part for all of us is that Grant has been broken for seven years,” she said. “This is not a problem that happened overnight.”

While the district had planned to install the new HVAC systems at Grant Union High School this April, Martinez said this month it will now wait until summer to avoid disrupting students during the school year.

At the East Natomas Education Complex, a gleaming campus that has never opened for school, 53 HVAC units sit unused. The former Grant district dedicated state and local bond funds toward the complex that was to cost $157 million and serve nearly 3,000 middle school and high school students in northeast Natomas.

But after Twin Rivers absorbed the Grant district in 2008, the new district shut down construction during the recession. Martinez said the district still plans to open the campus at a future date.

A 60-ton machine, known as a boxcar unit because of its size, remains on an East Natomas field adjacent to a levee, its metal siding pried open by thieves who raided parts. Officials say they have reported damage to the $90,000 unit to their insurance company.

District spokeswoman Zenobia Gerald said the district could not move the East Natomas units to other Twin Rivers schools in need.

“It’s an issue of compatibility,” she said. “Each unit is purchased to accommodate the size, structure and design of that building and the building’s HVAC system.”

In the parking lot behind the district’s maintenance facility, new HVAC units intended for Ridgepoint Elementary School have sat uncovered for about seven years, according to district officials.

“That’s where the prior administration left them,” said Michael Braff, Twin Rivers’ acting director of facilities, planning and construction.

Martinez said Ridgepoint does not have a heating or cooling problem. Its current HVAC system is about 10 years old and does not need to be replaced, Braff said.

The defunct Rio Linda Union School District purchased 33 Ridgepoint units with funds from a $38 million bond that voters approved in 2006. The district included new HVAC systems for Ridgepoint on its bond project list. Twin Rivers officials, who see no immediate need for HVAC replacements at Ridgepoint, could not say why Rio Linda administrators told voters they needed money for the units.

Although the district installed three of the 30 rooftop units at Ridgepoint last year, it also has used 13 to replace vandalized units in portables at other Twin Rivers schools, Braff said.

Braff said he expects less than 10 percent of the units remaining in the parking lot to need new rubber seals before being installed.

Mike Trimble, an HVAC instructor for the nonprofit Center for Employment Training, agreed with Braff’s analysis that the Ridgepoint units would still function after so many years in the elements.

“I’d probably open it up and get all the cobwebs out of it and check the belts,” he said. “As far as actually hooking up power to it and getting it to run, it probably won’t be a big deal.”

The district has 34 HVAC units in storage for Harmon Johnson Elementary School, a north Sacramento campus built in 1958 where heating and air-conditioning problems have been reported. Twin Rivers purchased the units in April 2012, when it purchased the Grant units. The district replaced three units – in the library, office and administration building – three weeks ago, Braff said.

District officials plan to file a hardship application with the state to get funds to install the remaining units but will go forward with the project even if they don’t win a grant, Martinez said.

Martinez said he is committed to completing projects identified before and after the merger. He recently said the district will use $1 million in emergency money released in September to fix heating and cooling problems and also will put aside $1 million annually for continued maintenance and replacement of heating and air-conditioning 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.

Jefferson remains skeptical. She said the recent push to repair the district’s HVAC systems remind her of a similar effort two years ago.

“It doesn’t last long,” she said of the fixes. “That’s what they said to us two years ago when we complained. Just to appease us, they patched up some of the classes. If they did what they told us they did, then we wouldn’t have had 300 work orders.”

Idle HVAC units

Twin Rivers Unified has 140 heating, ventilation and air conditioning units sitting in storage or atop vacant buildings. Some were purchased by Twin Rivers Unified, others by the districts that preceded it.

School Yearpurchased Unitspurchased Unitsunused
Grant Union High School 2012 38 36
Harmon Johnson Elementary School 2012 37 34
Ridgepoint Elementary School  2007-08 33 17
East Natomas Education Complex Before 2009 53 53
Total 161 140

Source: Bee research