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Class sizes swell to 50 students as cooling troubles have schools doubling up

District officials argue air-conditioning breakdown at Diskin Elementary School underscores school maintenance needs

Schools double up after AC fails

Paul Takahashi

Decker Elementary School teacher Kim Jeter reads to a 51-student fourth-grade class on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. The air-conditioning system at the nearby Diskin Elementary school, a 39-year-old school that was last renovated 13 years ago, failed on Tuesday, prompting school officials to temporarily close the school and transfer Diskin students to Decker on Wednesday.

Updated Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012 | 3:07 p.m.

Schools Double Up After AC System Fails

A welcome sign for Diskin Elementary School students is posted at the front of Decker Elementary School on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. About 700 Diskin students were temporarily transferred to Decker on Wednesday after the 39-year-old school's air-conditioning system failed on Tuesday. Launch slideshow »

Decker Elementary School teacher Kim Jeter faced her fourth-grade class and began reading “Hailstones and Halibut Bones.”

More than 100 eyeballs stared back at Jeter as her words emanated across the cramped classroom crammed wall-to-wall with 51 students.

At least this room has a working air-conditioning system.

There were more kids, more cars and more parents than usual on Wednesday at this Spring Valley-area school, which served as a refuge for about 700 additional students from nearby Diskin Elementary School.

Diskin was temporarily closed Wednesday after its air-conditioning system failed on Tuesday.

The 39-year-old school’s HVAC system was last renovated 13 years ago. The school operated on a year-round schedule until two years ago, so when the AC system failed on Tuesday, it didn’t come as a surprise to Principal Elizabeth Smith.

"We live in a very warm climate so it’s a load on our air conditioning," Smith said.

Although maintenance crews worked until late Tuesday night, they were not able to fix the school's aging and worn-down HVAC system, forcing the Clark County School District to hurriedly find an alternative to keeping students at home on Wednesday while repairs were being made. Chiller systems typically have a lifespan of 20 years, officials said.

The temporary fix? Cramming nearly 1,300 students into Decker, which originally was designed to hold just 588 students.

School officials and staff worked late on Tuesday, formulating new bus, lunch and classroom schedules to accommodate the influx of new students. Parents at both schools were notified via a recorded phone call and email through the district's ParentLink system.

The schools were integrated rather smoothly on Wednesday. With staggered drop-off times, the streets surrounding Decker didn't seem any more congested than usual.

Inside the school was a different story.

Classrooms overflowed with students, some of whom had to sit on the floor, said Decker Principal Karen Johnson. Even with two teachers – one from Diskin, the other from Decker – teaching a classroom of more than 50 students proved difficult.

Still, the school made the best of its situation, Johnson said.

"This isn’t a wasted day," she said. "It's business as usual. Kids are engaged and at work."

Parents and teachers have been understanding of the situation, Smith said. Although a number of parents and students mistakenly showed up in the morning at Diskin, they were directed immediately to Decker without a program, guided by maps and directions printed last night, Smith said.

Tammie Gray said she was glad CCSD officials were tending to Diskin’s air-conditioning problems as she dropped off her 8-year-old daughter, Mimi, a third-grader at Diskin. However, Gray said she was a little worried about the logistics of moving 700 elementary-aged students into an already full school for a day.

“I don’t know what they’re going to do,” Gray said about the influx of Diskin students into Decker, “if they’re going to be on the floor, if there are enough seats.”

Diskin staff and teachers were on duty outside Decker on Wednesday, greeting parents and children and trying to direct them to their proper gathering areas before classes were to begin. Some Diskin parents and their children had wandered inside the school, where Decker staff helped guide them to their respective areas.

The inconvenience caused by the air-conditioning problems wasn’t restricted to the visitors from Diskin, though.

As Jeremy Smithson was dropping off his 8-year-old daughter, Riley, at Decker, he offered his forecast that Wednesday would be a lost day for most of the students, be they from Diskin or Decker.

“They won’t be doing much learning today,” Smithson predicted. “I understand kids need to be in school, but this isn’t going to be a day of learning.”

About 700 Diskin students were sent to Spring Valley High School around lunchtime Tuesday after the Diskin air-conditioning system failed, district spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson said.

District officials said they hope to resolve the air-conditioning issue at Diskin as soon as possible.

The HVAC system failure is indicative of the larger maintenance issue the School District is facing across its 357 school buildings, Fulkerson said. In the wake of the recession, cash-strapped School District has delayed crucial renovation and maintenance of schools to save money, she said.

Anticipating a $5.3 billion school maintenance need over the next decade, the School District is pursuing a capital improvement plan that would help fix the most needy schools. The proposed six-year $720 million capital levy would increase property taxes by $74 on a home assessed at $100,000.

Although Diskin’s HVAC system is not on the list of immediate needs, it is still a “good example” of the type of projects slated for renovation if voters approve the property tax increase in November, Fulkerson said.

Diskin Principal Smith agreed, saying she hopes the AC troubles at her school will spur voters to approve the tax initiative in November.

"The money that it would bring to our school would help fix these issues," Smith said. "We're not the only school with AC issues."

Critics of the tax proposal have sought to derail the ballot initiative however.

On Wednesday morning, the Nevada Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a local libertarian think-tank's lawsuit against the School District's efforts. The Nevada Policy Research Institute – which has raised questions about the capital improvement plan – sued the Clark County Debt Management Commission and the School District in late July, alleging the commission failed to take public comment on the proposed tax initiative before approving its placement on the November ballot.

The lawsuit threatens to shove the School District's tax initiative off of the ballot. The Supreme Court will decide in the coming weeks whether or not a lower court failed to grant NPRI a preliminary injunction to the ballot question.

NPRI spokesman Victor Joecks said the School District had a "very talented PR firm" that was using Diskin's broken air-conditioning system to make a political point advocating for the tax increase.

"A/C units break; that's why you need a maintenance budget," Joecks said. "But there's a difference between a maintenance budget and asking for $5.3 billion."

Diskin Elementary School was reopened on Thursday, September 6, 2012.

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