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The Learning Curve: How San Diego Unified Defends Stadiums Over Air Conditioning

San Diego Unified has spent millions on football stadiums, but many classrooms still go without air conditioning. Here are some ways the district has justified stadium spending (yes, patriotism comes up)

On the second day of the school year, Superintendent Cindy Marten let me tag along with her on a visit to San Diego High School.

It was still early in the day, just after 10, and already the classrooms were stifling. Marten was there for a school visit. So while she shadowed her area superintendent, who in turn shadowed the school principals, my plan was to shadow Marten.

As we dipped in and out of classrooms, sweat dripped onto my notebook and bled my writing. The air was thick and smelled like a musty gym shirt. I spent only a few minutes at a time in classrooms. I didn’t want to imagine what it was like for kids or teachers who cook in those hotboxes for an entire day.

Learning Curve-01On the one hand, weather is about the most clichéd thing to ever grumble about. On the other, lack of air conditioning in classrooms raises serious concerns for health and the ethical treatment of kids.

Earlier this month, parents posted pictures on social media showing thermometers inside classrooms that registered close to 100 degrees.

“I’m not taking [my kids to school] tomorrow,” one mom told NBC. “The district can eat it.”

In 2008, and again in 2012, voters approved construction bonds that together would give the district $5 billion to spend on things like repairs, renovations and air conditioning.

Responding to community pressure, in 2013 school board members bumped air conditioning up the project list and promised to cool 2,000 of the hottest classrooms. The district was broken into three zones: coastal, central and inland. The latter, hottest two, would see air conditioning. Schools in coastal zones – though they might get toasty – aren’t scheduled for AC.

And the district has spent on this initiative – about $93 million, as of last spring. But classrooms in San Diego High, and many others, haven’t seen the benefits.

The whole time I toured the school, I wondered if the district might be able to put AC in more classrooms had they not spent elsewhere – say, for example, on multi-million dollar stadiums.

That’s a tricky one to answer. That is, even without the stadiums, we can’t say the district would have necessarily installed air conditioning in more schools.

But it does beg a question I can answer, one that was tweeted this week by VOSD-supporter Andy Kopp.

Question: What rationale is San Diego Unified using to justify spending millions on football stadiums? – Andy Kopp, reader (I paraphrased the question)

When we dug into this issue last spring, the district had spent $107 million on athletic facilities – about $14 million more than it had spent on air conditioning.

After we found seemingly routine repairs — like a leaky ceiling at Hoover High – had been put on the backburner while spending on stadiums and athletic facilities took precedence, we pressed district officials for an explanation.

Here are five reasons the district has given for why it has prioritized stadiums.

Equity

This is the first reason listed, and the one that’s easiest to swallow. Because some schools have nice stadiums, all schools should have nice stadiums.

This seems fair and straightforward. But then again, there are also disparities between schools in the quality of their classrooms – things that more directly impact teaching, learning, and safety. We found the doors and windows were so old at Hoover High, for example, maintenance staff couldn’t properly secure the building from break-ins at night.

Curb Appeal

You had to love former trustee Scott Barnett – his quotes were always colorful and impolitic. He gave us his rationale straight. Here, he reminds us that priorities are set by school board members, and school board members are politicians:

“The things that people want to prioritize aren’t always the things we need to prioritize,” Barnett said. “It’s about what the parents want and what the politicians want. Look, you can’t do a ribbon-cutting on new plumbing, right? But you can do it on a new stadium.”

Andy Berg, chair of the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee that was appointed to monitor bond projects, echoed Barnett:

“Repairs aren’t sexy. Stadiums are sexy,” he said. Berg was a major supporter of Proposition Z, which raised property taxes $66 for every $100,000 of property value someone owns in the school district’s boundaries.

Stadiums Raise Test Scores

Berg went further still, suggesting that cool facilities help kids feel better about their schools, which in turn ups their academic performance.

If you take the asbestos out of the wall, do kids feel any better about where they go to school? But if they have a new stadium, that means something. Kids feel a connection to their school. They take pride in their surroundings, they feel more comfortable, which leads to better test scores,” Berg said.

It’s tempting to snark this argument, but in a 2011 board presentation, the district pointed to research that showed better facilities correlate to higher academic performance, when students’ socioeconomic statuses are controlled.

And at the very least, the district has evidence to suggest better facilities help lure parents and students.

The wrench in this theory, of course, is Lincoln High. (Sorry, Hornets). Academics there have been shaky since 2007, when it reopened with a sparkling $129 million campus, including a new stadium.

People With Disabilities

If we’re going to have stadiums, they need to be wheelchair accessible. And as long as we’re making stadium renovations, we might as well go all in.

This is also a defensible argument. But if the only objective was to make stadiums more accessible, it would spend a lot less money. The stadium at Mission Bay High cost the district $11 million.

America

This is one of my favorites. When I spoke to Lee Dulgeroff, the district’s facilities planning and construction officer, he mentioned that stadiums aren’t just places for football games. They’re also large gathering places for assemblies and graduation ceremonies. In that respect, they need to be accessible to everyone.

“You don’t know who’s going to arrive in a large assembly space,” Dulgeroff said. “It could be somebody’s grandmother, grandfather, mom, dad or a veteran returning home from war.”

In short, it’s downright un-American of you to question bond spending.

Ed Reads of The Week

Howard Blume was out with a good scoop this week after he obtained a memo outlining the Broad Foundation’s plan to greatly expand charter schools in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Unified School District officials took exception to the idea their students would be better served in charter schools, and viewed the plan as an attack on their work. The plan, ambitious in scope, would double the number of charter schools in a city that already has more than anywhere else in the country.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is a layered man. On the basketball court, he’s known as Cobra. He splits the political middle, seemingly appeasing nobody. The loyalty – and vitriol – he inspires brings people to tears (weirdly, multiple times in this article).

It’s a great profile, one which describes the warfare that lines the trenches of education-policy dealings.

Some of his reforms won’t stand the test of time. Which makes me wonder if the net gain in education is whatever is left over when the current administration, superintendent or principal undoes the work of his predecessor.

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