MPS defends decision to not expand air conditioning with COVID aid money

NOW: MPS defends decision to not expand air conditioning with COVID aid money

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The facilities director for Milwaukee Public Schools on Monday defended the district's decision to not use its share of federal pandemic relief money to install air conditioning in more of its buildings.

Last week, MPS cancelled class Wednesday and Thursday as the city dealt with sweltering temperatures at or near 100 degrees. Forty-four percent of the district's schools do not have air conditioning.

MPS is receiving $770 million between three rounds of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds, commonly known as ESSER I, II and III. Most of that money is in the second and third rounds, amounting to more than $730 million for MPS.

According to a CBS 58 review of the district's most recent spending outline for its ESSER II and III money, published in May, MPS has committed a total of $2 million toward HVAC-related upgrades. The $2 million allocation was earmarked for upgrading air conditioning units in master closets.

The Institute for Reforming Government, a conservative think tank, has criticized MPS for not prioritizing HVAC upgrades. The group's senior research director, Quinton Klabon, pointed to spending on athletic facilities and carpeting as areas where the district could have instead expanded air conditioning.

"Lots of these buildings are old; we understand that," Klabon said. "So, rather than doing renovations that are cosmetic or nice to have, I think the need to have HVAC is incredibly critical."

Milwaukee Public Schools has committed to spending $2 million on air conditioning upgrades. The district received more than $730 million in the two most recent rounds of federal pandemic aid.

 According to the MPS spending plan, the district is using $15.1 million to renovate fieldhouses, pools and locker rooms. MPS will spend another $5.3 million to install turf baseball diamonds. 

That money is in the "extracurricular engagement" category, which is separate from facilities.

Under the facilities section, Sean Kane, the senior director of facilities, said MPS wanted to prioritize air quality upgrades coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Between ESSER II and III, the district committed $20 million for testing and balancing air and hydronic flows in the district's approximately 150 buildings. Some of the other air quality items included $17.2 million for outdoor classrooms, as well as new windows, doors, carpeting and air purifiers.

The district also earmarked another $65 million on unspecified capital projects in the air quality category.

"[We did] essentially a ventilation audit, was taking a look at the school sites across the district," Kane said. "And if we identified any deficiencies or improvements we needed to do to the mechanical systems, that's the major push we had - is addressing air quality."

Kane added it would've been impractical to install new HVAC systems in each of the district's buildings that don't have air conditioning. He cited the cost given the age and size of some schools, while adding only a portion of the district's aid money could go toward facilities upgrades.

"To say MPS didn't take a look at things? I would not agree with that," Kane said. "Taking a look at mechanical systems, you're asking for the dollar amount, it would be a multimillion-dollar effort. We could've been approaching a billion dollars doing the amount of buildings."

Klabon said he believed a better use of the facilities money would've been identifying the district's most crowded schools without air conditioning and installing new HVAC systems in at least some of those buildings.

"I think it's a poor decision to decide that because we can't provide HVAC in all of Milwaukee Public Schools, that we can't provide it in any of them," he said.

To get an idea of how much it costs to outfit a school with a new HVAC system, the Madison Metropolitan School District is using $15 million of the $42.5 million it received in ESSER III to design and build new HVAC systems in three of its elementary schools.

According to state records, MPS still has about $138 million in ESSER III aid it has yet to budget.

Klabon said because of supply chain backups and labor shortages, it might be too late for the district to use any of that remaining sum on new air conditioning. The deadline for school districts to use its ESSER III money is Sept. 30, 2024.

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