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Why It Took A Month To Fix The Heating System For These City Heights Classrooms

Four students sit at desks wearing hooded sweatshirts or a jacket in a Monroe...

Credit: Andy Soto

Above: Four students sit at desks wearing hooded sweatshirts or a jacket in a Monroe Clark Middle School classroom. Teacher Andy Soto said the photo was taken during a heating outage at the school.

The dress code at Monroe Clark Middle School temporarily changed in late January.

Against school policy, teachers permitted seventh-graders to wear their hoods in class. Others wore winter coats, if they had them. Some asked to bring in blankets. They were trying to stay warm amid a heating outage that affected 15 classrooms during a spate of wet winter weather in San Diego.

The outage lasted for more than four weeks.

Two teachers and a counselor from Clark Middle School told KPBS the problem took too long to resolve and hoped that speaking out would speed up the process. A district spokesman said it took time to determine the cause but the school provided affected classrooms with portable heaters and the option to relocate to a warm space.

“Some of the lowest temperatures recorded were 52, 51 degrees and the highest were somewhere in the upper 50s, low 60s,” said Andy Soto, a teacher who first reported the problem when staff and students returned from winter break on Jan. 22.

Soto said he expected warm air to kick back on within a day or two, but a district technician didn’t examine the problem until Feb. 7. The tech got it back online, but it was out again the next day.

Photo credit: Andy Soto

A thermometer shows a reading of 53 degrees. Teacher Andy Soto said the measurement was taken inside a classroom at Monroe Clark Middle School during a heating outage.

Clark Middle sits in San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood, home to a large immigrant community where Census estimates show the median income is about $40,000 less than the city of San Diego. The most recent state data available shows 90 percent of students at the majority Hispanic school qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Gale Petzrick, a Clark teacher not in the affected area, said she brought six extra jackets to school and four of them were claimed by students within a day.

“Turn your heat off and let it get down to 55. Then you’ll know what these kids are dealing with,” Petzrick said.

As a union representative for the San Diego Education Association, she said she began a low-level grievance over the lack of heat and met with the principal to find a resolution.

On the day of her interview with KPBS, Petzrick said she was prepared to move to the next stage because classrooms were still cold, but the following day the affected classrooms felt warm again. A San Diego Unified School District representative confirmed heat was restored Feb. 21 — the day KPBS interviewed Petzrick, Soto and Karen Cantor, a counselor at Clark whose office was affected by the outage.

District Spokesman Samer Naji said outages aren’t unusual during extreme weather like the recent winter chill, but he said the problem at Clark Middle took so long because it was complex.

“The problem in the 200 building specifically turned out to be an issue with the breaker sensitivity, and it did take some time to coordinate a proper response with the contractors to make sure that it got fixed safely,” Naji said.

In the meantime, he said Clark Middle’s principal provided each classroom a portable heater and the option to move their classes to a warm space.

“Short of closing down the school, that’s the district’s response and we think the principal’s response was appropriate,” said Naji, communications supervisor for the district’s facilities.

None of the teachers moved. Soto said the heater didn’t provide much relief but he didn’t relocate because it would’ve further disrupted learning. He said when teachers were previously moved for the installation of air conditioning, it took weeks to get kids on track.

He said the students were already distracted and complaining about the heating issue. Soto said when one asked out loud what was taking so long to fix the system, another commented, “because we live in the ghetto.”

Soto said he responded that the kids should explain the heat issue to their parents, who weren’t officially notified about the problem until after it was resolved.

“I told them that it’s more important – because you feel like that – it’s more important for you to speak up and speak to your parents and have them come and talk to the school, contact the district,” Soto said.

But Soto, Petzrick and Cantor said they didn’t hear complaints from parents or guardians. The district didn't receive complaints from them either. Cantor said that’s part of the reason she chose to speak to KPBS about the heating problem.

“We are advocates for these children. We advocate day-in, day-out,” she said.

Cantor, Soto and Peztrick said they are pleased the heat is back on, but are still concerned about how long it took to repair. Cantor said she felt the students are often overlooked because the school is in a high-minority, low-income area. Soto called it a "social injustice."

Naji said the district works to provide "all students with high-quality facilities," and that the middle school recently received $12 million in improvements, which were completed last year.

“In fact, the heating issue could have been the result of that effort to provide students with a state-of-the-art facility, as electrical calibration issues are not uncommon with new construction projects,” he said in a follow-up email.

He acknowledged the long time it took to repair, but said the school’s response was appropriate.

“We are not pleased that it takes several weeks to restore heat but we are thankful for the principal's quick response,” Naji said.

He said the decision regarding when to notify parents was left up to the principal. A letter was sent out Monday after the problem was resolved but Naji encouraged parents to reach out anytime with questions or concerns.

The San Diego Unified School Board is expected to receive a report on the incident. President Sharon Whitehurst-Payne requested it after she was contacted by KPBS. In a statement she said the principal took “immediate action” in response to the outage, but said “there is always room for improvement.”

Teachers say the outage that affected 15 classrooms at a local San Diego middle school went on too long. The district says it offered heaters and a warm space as alternatives while it worked on the issue.

You can hear this story and other local news every morning by subscribing to San Diego Stories, KPBS’ daily news podcast. Subscribe via iTunes, Google Play or your favorite podcatcher.

Editor's Note: The headline of this story was updated to clarify that it took a month to fix the main heating system for some classrooms at Monroe Clark Middle School.

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