by Dr. Robert Luebke
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Not even two weeks into the new school year, at least nine Wake County public schools have already been forced to dismiss students early or close entirely because of HVAC issues.
A local newspaper reported last week that teachers at more than 50 Wake County schools complained about malfunctioning air conditioning units.
Officials from Wake County schools have said that a supply-chain issues and staff shortages have contributed significantly to the current problems.
That may be the case, but Wake’s seeming refusal to deal with the issue over the past three years also contributes greatly to the issue.
The latest Five Year State Facilities Needs Report (2021) estimated that North Carolina had $12.8 billion in new capital needs repairs or renovations. In addition, North Carolina school districts reported about $693.6 million in HVAC renovation needs.
How much will it cost to fix Wake County Public Schools’ HVAC issues? Who knows. According to a 2021 news report, district officials estimated that figure at about $349 million. After two years of inflation, you can bet that figure is now considerably higher.
North Carolina received about $6 billion in federal funding to address Covid in K-12 schools. A good portion of that funding was to be used for improving HVAC systems and air quality to help stop the spread of the virus. According to data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Wake County has received $443 million in federal Covid-relief funds. The district has spent $351.8 million. Of that amount, only $88,690 was spent on “Capital Outlay” since 2020. Within that category, the district recorded no expenditures for “HVAC Contracts.” Frankly, that’s hard to believe, but that’s the figure listed. There is no other category listed for HVAC work.
Considering the clear need to ensure the health and safety of our children and the availability of federal funding to address many of these needs, why did Wake County Schools choose to ignore these issues for so long? Why did their ESSER III Grant application for American Rescue Plan Act funds say they would use no monies for “Facility Repairs/Improvements to Minimize Virus Transmission” or “Improve Air Quality”?
According to North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Wake County Public Schools still has about $91 million in unspent Covid funds.
It’s far past time for the problem to be addressed.