Some Salem classrooms will get window film following excessive heat complaints

Salem’s hottest classrooms will get a bit of relief before kids return to school in the fall, but full-scale air conditioning upgrades are likely years away at best.

Robert Silva, the chief operations officer for the Salem-Keizer School District, said the district is working to buy heat reducing film for windows in un-air conditioned classrooms after piloting the material this spring.

Silva met with educators at Waldo Middle School on June 7, following complaints of excessive heat in the final weeks of the school year. Some building classrooms recorded temperatures in the mid to high 80s.

“I can’t give you a solution today, tomorrow, but I wanted you to hear from me,” Silva told the group.

Teachers across the district told district administrators, union leaders and Salem Reporter that the high temperatures were impacting students’ ability to learn, with more students falling asleep or unfocused in class. The heat wave came as some students were taking state tests intended to gauge whether they can read and do math at grade level.

Half the district’s schools are at least 50 years old, with the oldest, Liberty Elementary, dating back to 1908, according to a district list provided to Salem Reporter. About half the schools have air conditioning in at least some wings of the building.

Multiple people filed complaints with Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration over hot temperatures at Leslie Middle School the week of May . Those remain open, according to an agency spokesman.

Silva said the excessive heat at Leslie was due to a broken air conditioning system the district’s facilities department is working to fix.

The district will use portions of its federal Covid relief money, which must be spent in the next year, to buy heat-protecting film for about 2,200 classroom windows in buildings or areas without air conditioning, totalling about 54,000 square feet of window. The decision comes after testing the film in an un-air conditioned classroom at Auburn Elementary School that was especially hot, Silva said, and receiving good feedback from the teacher.

Silva didn’t yet have a cost estimate but said he hopes to have film in place by the start of school in the fall, though that will depend on contractor availability. He said the district will continue to buy fans until all requests from teachers are exhausted, but acknowledged that won’t do much to address overly hot classrooms.

“It’s an ineffective solution but it’s better than nothing,” he told the Waldo teachers. 

The district purchased 400 fans at the start of the school year, 400 in late May, and another 1,000 just before the meeting.

“If I didn’t order enough, I’ll order more,” he said.

Waldo was built in 1957 and has air conditioning only in the main office and two classrooms. Silva told Salem Reporter Waldo is likely among the five worst schools in the district for heat.

Retrofitting the school for air conditioning would cost at least $10 million, Silva told teachers, and likely more due to the age of the school’s electrical system. 

Putting individual air conditioning units in classrooms is also challenging, he said, because of the added electrical load on the building, the need for ongoing maintenance to empty water trays, and the potential security issues posed by having units venting out windows which would provide easy access to the school.

A long-delayed district-wide assessment of HVAC systems at local schools is underway and expected to be completed in August 2024. That assessment will combine all district data on existing heating and cooling systems in one place and provide a cost to repair systems with 10 years or less of life expectancy, said Karma Kruse, the district’s public engagement manager for capital construction.

The assessment will also give an estimated cost to add cooling to buildings without air conditioning, and separate out the cost for classrooms from large spaces like gyms and lunchrooms, Kruse said.

Silva said that assessment is a component of the district’s long-range facilities plan, which is used to decide on capital projects, like building new schools or expanding existing ones. Such projects are typically funded through property taxes outside the district’s regular operating budget and require a vote.

Salem-area voters last approved a construction bond in 2018 to fund renovations and expansions of most district schools over five years at a cost of $755 million. The work is nearing its end, but adding air conditioning to schools was not a priority citizens identified as district leaders planned what projects to include.

Teachers at the school told Silva they’ve been skeptical a solution will happen until the heat has a clear impact on a student.

“Someone is going to have to have a very serious medical emergency due to the heat to have change enacted,” said Mackenzie Shimojima, a Waldo teacher and union representative, at the meeting.

Silva said adding air conditioning is the ultimate solution, but that will likely take years and depend on voters being willing to pay for further school renovations.

He told teachers he’s committed to working on the issue, but said, “I can’t make any promises today.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.