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Editorial: Twin Rivers students must be warm enough to learn

Getting students to focus in class is tough enough. If all they can think about is how cold it is, how can they learn?

That, however, is the appalling and unacceptable situation for too many pupils in the Twin Rivers Unified School District. As The Bee’s Diana Lambert revealed Tuesday, hundreds of students returned from winter break to chilly classrooms. Some are bundling up in “Snuggies” and sleeping bags to stay warm.

The district has no shortage of explanations. Its schools have aging heating systems, some so old that it’s difficult to find parts. Layoffs of maintenance workers forced by the budget crisis eliminated much routine upkeep. At Grant High, an old roof has to be upgraded to support the new heavier heating and cooling system bought more than three years ago. At Woodlake Elementary, a copper theft damaged the heating system.

But really, there’s no good excuse. Students, parents and teachers have every right to expect better. Their concerns rose as temperatures plummeted last month, which recorded the most frigid overnight lows since 1990.

Superintendent Steven Martinez says while there are reasons for the problems, he understands why the community is upset. “Our No. 1 priority is to give our kids a safe learning environment,” he told The Bee’s editorial board.

He says there has been progress and vows to complete the work as quickly as possible, though he wasn’t comfortable Tuesday guaranteeing a date.

Since September, when school district trustees approved spending $1 million out of reserves to fix heating and cooling problems, there have been more than 300 work orders completed. About 80 heating units were repaired over winter vacation, but that still leaves nearly 30 classrooms without heat.

Martinez says the district has hired an outside contractor to accelerate repairs, and has restored three staff technicians, with more to come.

At their meeting Tuesday night, district trustees were to approve $40,000 more for emergency heating repairs as part of their consent agenda for “routine” business. This is not a routine matter. At every meeting, trustees should ask for a detailed status report until every classroom is warm enough to learn.

Once the short-term repairs are done, the district still needs some $200 million to entirely modernize its schools over the longer term. While some money will be available from a recent bond refinancing, district officials say they need more state funding for major projects.

Trustees and Martinez, who started as superintendent last July 1, face big challenges in turning around a district with low test scores. They need to take full advantage of the new Common Core educational standards and the new state funding formula that is supposed to help districts, like Twin Rivers, with large numbers of disadvantaged students.

Martinez says he wants to focus on his ambitious agenda to boost student achievement and community involvement. That is going to be more difficult as long as there are classrooms with shivering students.