Too Cool for School

Dozens of public schools in Oakland went without heat for weeks at a time in the past month or two.

On January 5, the first day back from winter break, the principal of
Oakland’s Emiliano Zapata Street Academy high school called up the
district and threatened to cancel classes until the heat was turned on
in her frigid school.

“What I was going to do was close the school,” said Principal
Patricia Williams-Myrick. “It’s unfair to students and staff. You can’t
very well function if you’re freezing to death.”

The ultimatum worked, and shortly thereafter workers showed up to
turn on the boilers. It had taken over a month of requests from the
principal, but by the day’s end, the school was nice and toasty.

Like scores of other schools throughout the district, Street Academy
hadn’t had heat all year, even as daytime temperatures dropped into the
low forties in the weeks preceding winter break. And while students and
teachers had grown accustomed to wearing multiple layers and watching
their breath rise, most assumed that the district’s maintenance crew
would finally get around to turning on the school’s boilers before the
end of the two-week vacation. But, upon entering the ice box of a
building that Monday, it became overtly clear that such was not the
case.

“I was told there was a shortage of personnel to go out to schools,”
said Williams-Myrick, recalling her initial conversations with the
district’s Buildings and Grounds department in the late fall. “That’s
all well and good, but that’s not my problem. … Being cold, I can’t
function, so the students and staff can’t function.”

Williams-Myrick was told that her school was among many with the
same problem this year. Fixing the heat in elementary schools was the
first priority. She said she was promised a delivery of space heaters
for the classrooms in the interim, but those never arrived.

“I told students to dress accordingly — gloves and scarves,”
she said. “Sometimes you just learn how to cope.”

The principal of another heatless Oakland school, who wished to
remain anonymous, reported speaking to a switch board operator at
Buildings and Grounds in December, and was told that 32 district
schools were having heating problems, resulting in a logjam of work
orders.

Most of the district’s school sites have boilers that have to be
reset each winter. It’s a generally routine procedure, but one that
requires the work of a skilled technician, called a steamfitter, of
which the district employs a total of four. This year, however, two
steamfitters were out on extended leave, reducing the ranks by half,
according to OUSD’s Buildings and Ground’s Director Leroy Stokes. That
makes two steamfitters for more than 150 school sites. Stokes couldn’t
confirm the number of schools left in the cold, but said that many of
the sites only lacked heat in part of the buildings, not the whole
site. In some sites, he added, the boilers and heating equipment are
quite old and replacement parts had to be ordered, taking additional
time.

“Now we’re managing it,” said Stokes, who noted that three outside
contractors were recently hired on a temporary basis to get the schools
back to core temperature. He said that things were also a bit more
complicated this year because, for the first time he could remember,
district managers order him to turn off all working boilers during the
winter break in order to save on energy costs.

“We were trying to do some energy conservation,” Stokes said. “It
was a new experience for us. I believe it probably saved in costs.”

Stokes said that the problems were resolved a good deal faster last
year, but noted that he’s has been dealing with personnel cutbacks for
some time, and that inevitably results in slower service. The 1980’s,
he added, were the golden years for his department, when he had
thirteen techs on his crew.

OUSD has long been burdened by its reputation of underperforming
schools and scant finances. But, despite rough times, the basic
essentials, like heat, have generally been assumed as a given. And
while attention and resources have often recently been directed towards
new technologies and professional development endeavors in schools, the
literal nuts and bolts of site maintenance, including janitorial
services, seem to sometimes be pushed to the back burner.

In the more than thirty years that Principal Williams-Myrick has
been at her school, she’s faced her share of work-related tribulations
and isn’t fazed by much. But Williams-Myrick said she’s never seen
anything like this before. Sure, in some years the heat had gone off
for a few days at a time, but never for weeks on end. “For the most
part, it’s been taken care of right away.”

Williams-Myrick said the dearth in maintenance staff and lack of
reliable service is all the product of a district that’s grown out of
touch with the schools they’re trying to manage. “They don’t really
know what’s going on,” she said. “They don’t have a plan. What’s really
important is the kids, and that seems to have gotten away. They talk
the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.”

The constant flux in leadership and excessively large administrative
staff downtown, she added, acerbates the problem. “Every time there’s
someone new, the whole plan changes again,” Williams-Myrick said.
“That’s where I’m saying more resources should be designated actually
for the schools, not downtown where there are too many people. It’s a
confusing situation.”

Up until winter break, only two classrooms at the Oakland
International School in Temescal had heat, which instantly made them
the most popular places on campus, according to Principal Carmelita
Reyes. After entering a work order on January 3 into the district’s
computer system, Reyes said she received an e-mail during vacation that
said the problem had been fixed. “But it hadn’t,” she said. The heat
only began fully functioning during the middle of the first week of
January, when workers came in and quickly remedied the problem.

“Everyone was wearing layers upon layers of clothes,” she said.
“Sometimes it was warmer outside.”

For Reyes’ school, the lack of early winter heat has become an
annual occurrence, she said. Last year, the gas was turned off for two
months due to a leak in the gas line coming into the school, which in
addition to having no heat, also resulted in cafeteria workers not
being able to use the ovens to warm up food for students.

Reyes noted that many of her kids, who are recently arrived
immigrants from mostly warm climates, didn’t even know they could
complain. “They don’t know how to advocate for their rights or what
they’re rights even are.”

Her sentiments are similar to that of Williams-Myrick and a number of other principals, who have had to spend a significant amount of unanticipated time addressing basic site maintenance issues in addition to their myriad management responsibilities. Reyes described a meeting of principals in December at West Oakland Middle School, yet another site that didn’t have heat that month. “We were all freezing.” No one has the full staff they need, Reyes said, noting that it should be standard practice for the district to hire whatever temporary maintenance staff it needs by November, rather than waiting till the work orders have already piled up and the kids are shivering in class.

“It’s cutbacks,” Reyes said. “This isn’t just Buildings and Grounds’
fault. We’re all running a school district as leanly as we can. It’s a
skeleton crew, and when we hit cold weather, there are lots of
problems.”

Back at Street Academy, the heat is now cranking and students have
already grown accustomed to peeling off layers as they enter the
building. Asked if they seemed grateful for the reliable warmth,
Williams-Myrick sighed: “Now kids are talking about how it’s too
hot.”

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