School board grapples with district’s aging cooling systems

MARFA — With students back in school as of mid-August, school board members and administrators are working to mitigate failing cooling systems in the elementary school and cafeteria by bringing in a number of large industrial-grade fans. 

The ongoing facilities challenge was discussed in a school board meeting this week and comes at a time where the district is finalizing its 2023-2024 budget, which is anticipated to have a $1 million deficit. The district, like others across the state, is hoping a forthcoming public education-focused special legislative session will result in a vital increase in state aid. 

After the district’s $57 million bond for a brand new K-12 school was rejected by voters last fall, it’s been faced with coming up with alternative solutions to its facilities problems.

When budget discussions initially began this past May, updates to the cafeteria — which is outfitted with an inadequate swamp cooler system — were highlighted as a need by Chief Financial Officer Rosela Rivera, who said the district may need to dip into reserve accounts to cover necessary HVAC and flooring upgrades. 

The elementary school campus, which runs off a boiler system, also suffers from extreme temperatures in the summer and winter. In May, Elementary Principal Amy White said both cooling and heating systems were routinely failing. Former Junior and High School Principal Luane Porter said the district nurse had even helped kids that were becoming sick due to suboptimal temperatures. 

With this summer’s historic heat waves, the start of the new school year saw similar issues persisting. Board President Teresa Nuñez said she had recently received feedback from concerned parents. 

“I’ve had a couple of parents reach out to me, like at the grocery store, and they’re like, ‘Hey, what’s going on? It’s been hot. Our kids have been sent home with headaches,’ and stuff like that. I’m like, we’re working on it,” said Nuñez. 

The school board will pass a finalized budget and tax rate this coming Monday. Interim Superintendent Arturo Alferez did not return requests for comment on the matter and potential solutions, including what facilities upgrades to the elementary school and cafeteria made it into the final budget. 

For now, with the help of Board Member Rene Gonzales, the district obtained three large fans with water reservoirs to help cool down buildings during school hours, which Alferez reported to the board as improving the situation. “You can feel the difference,” he said. 

Board Member Lori Flores asked White if the fan stationed on her campus was adequate. White said the second floor of the elementary school was still too hot, but they were working on getting the water added to the fans to get cool air flowing. She said more fans were likely needed to be more effective, but that may not be a cost-effective solution. (CFO Rivera did not immediately respond to requests for comment on how much the fans cost or if the district paid for them.) 

“We probably need three more so every hall gets one, [but] that’s going to be way expensive,” said White. 

“It’s better than what it was, so we’ll take it, definitely,” she added.