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Local and school officials call on state to help fund improvements to school ventilation systems

Local and school officials call on state to help fund improvements to school ventilation systems

Source: Amanda Blanco, Hartford Courant

Hundreds of schools across Connecticut lack air-conditioning systems and proper ventilation, school officials say, but town and state leaders continue to disagree on who is responsible for funding a solution.

Issues of air quality, ventilation and temperature regulation in schools gained greater attention during the coronavirus pandemic, but local officials said during a press conference Thursday that students and staff have struggled with such issues long before COVID-19. Groups representing towns, teachers, boards of education and superintendents came together for the event.

During her time as superintendent of schools, Fran Rabinowitz said Bridgeport schools often called parents in the middle of the day during June to pick up their children because school buildings reached unsafe temperatures. Rabinowitz now serves as the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

“The heat in the buildings was so high that I deemed it to be unsafe for our children,” she said. “Honestly, our children could ill-afford to lose that learning time.”

Newtown commissioned a school air quality study 20 years ago, said local board of education chair Michelle Embree Ku. Back then, repairs to HVAC systems for five schools were estimated to cost about $30 million.

The town addressed two of the buildings, but the cost to fix the remaining three now adds up to about $19 million. During COVID-19, classrooms without adequate air systems are dependent on portable air purifiers and air-conditioning units temporarily set up in certain rooms as “cooling stations” for children and staff, she said.

While towns say they can’t afford to upgrade school ventilation systems, state officials are pointing to the $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief money Connecticut schools are receiving through the American Rescue Plan. But not every town received enough money to do so, said Joe DeLong, executive director and CEO of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

In New Britain, a large portion of the district’s $50 million in ARP education funds will go towards building repairs and HVAC system upgrades, said Superintendent of Schools Nancy Sarra in late July. Newtown, a much smaller district, received about $1.2 million in education funds, and about $4 million for the entire town — about half the amount needed to fix the ventilation in just one elementary school built nearly 100 years ago, said Embree Ku.

“These are not maintenance projects that have been delayed because textbooks took priority,” she said. “These are townwide projects that take years of planning and investment.”

Local and school union officials want the state to include additional money for HVAC repairs in Lamont’s ARP spending plan, as well as broaden bond requirements and the criteria for when school construction bond money can be used.

Depending on a community’s wealth, the state will reimburse between 10% and 71% of costs for large renovations projects and new construction. But towns must pay for smaller projects, including HVAC replacements or upgrades.

"If air quality becomes so poor that the school environment is no longer safe, state policy will allow bonding for an entirely new facility to be built. But [it] won’t contemplate being a partner in keeping the existing building up and running — a much lower investment,” said DeLong. “We should be treating air quality systems the same as roofs and windows, recognizing that there is an end of life on these systems, and the state should be a partner in their replacement.”

But state officials disagreed and called for greater accountability on how schools are budgeting aid dollars.

When asked about funding air quality improvements in schools, Gov. Ned Lamont referenced the federal aid money school districts are already receiving and said superintendents have “broad discretion” over how it is spent.

“If you were in a particular school where you think ventilation may be a priority, I would think you’d use some of that money,” he said, adding that he wants the funds to be spent “productively ... and I want to hold people accountable for that.”

This report includes information from the CT Mirror.

Amanda Blanco can be reached at ablanco@courant.com.