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New Winter, Same Old LHS Heat Woes

December 21, 2018
A thermometer in Lowell High School read 60.3 degrees on Tuesday. The photo was submitted by a Sun reader on Thursday. Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

LOWELL -- As winter sets in, the temperature in Lowell High School is much the same as last year, according students.

Some areas of the school, particularly the 1922 building, are “ice.” Meanwhile, portions of the newer wing, built in 1980, can feel almost tropical, they say.

“It’s either exactly the same (as last year), or slightly worse,” said Alison Forchoh, a junior.

Unlike last school year, the buildings have not seen any closures due to heating issues, but keeping the aging systems in working condition is an ongoing challenge, according to City Manager Eileen Donoghue.

“The systems work, but they’re old and they’re struggling,” she said.

She said crews from the city’s Lands and Buildings division are at the high school and other schools almost daily to conduct repairs as the city looks for solutions to building needs.

“Out of our 27 schools, about half of them have heat issues (as) they have historically,” Donoghue said.

On Tuesday, her department presented a document to City Council proposing a timeline to submit proposals to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to secure grant money to fund repairs.

The list comes after a report from the Edward J. Collins, Jr. Center for Public Management released in July found Lowell has not submitted an application to the MSBA for any project besides the high school since 2011, despite being eligible for funding.

The city and the district plan to work together to submit proposals for roof and boiler projects at nine school buildings during the 2019 application period in January and February, according to the document.

This includes a $411,290 roof and windows project at the Freshman Academy, which officials want to ask the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to consider as separate from Lowell High School.

The list was compiled using a citywide facilities study conducted by EMG Corp. Another consulting company, Boston Mechanical, is evaluating systems in an effort to find solutions besides constant repairs, according to Donoghue.

“We’re not twiddling our thumbs,” she said. “We’re also trying to be proactive.”

But some are growing impatient. Paul Georges, president of the United Teachers of Lowell (UTL), said the city needs to take immediate action and find solutions to heating issues, particularly in the lower grades.

“After Christmas break, there will be no tolerance for this at all,” he said.

Georges said he is asking the city for a plan to move students to warm classrooms or, if necessary, shut down the schools.

The union took the issue before the Dec. 5 Board of Health meeting. Georges said the UTL is also pursuing “legal” options, though declined to expound.

Donoghue said she had no knowledge of any legal action. Plans to move students or shut down classrooms would fall to the school superintendent, she said.

Meanwhile the School Committee has turned its attention to securing additional money from the city as funds remain tight in both the city and the district. A motion proposed by School Committee member Gerry Nutter to re-negotiate the maintenance of effort between the district and the city by March 1, received support from all six School Committee members present at Wednesday night’s meeting.

“I get very frustrated when we have inconsistent heating on a regular basis at the high school and a lot of our schools,” Nutter said at the meeting. “And the manager rightly points owe have the staff down there working hard to fix that. Yes we do, but unfortunately every time staff goes down there to work on that that gets charged to maintenance of effort.”

He later clarified that his funding concerns go beyond school buildings.

As the weather chills, the high school has already faced some heating issues this school year.

On Monday night, the steam plant heating the 1922 building and the Freshman Academy went down. It was restarted by the time school began Tuesday morning and a walkthrough of the building by city and district employees, confirmed the heat had returned, according to Donoghue.

Nevertheless, with the heat off all night students said parts of the building were cold. Callie, a senior at Lowell High School who declined to give her last name, said she was wearing a coat, sweater, gloves and hat in her morning English class.

“It’s freezing,” she said. “It’s so hard to concentrate.”

She said a thermometer in her classroom read 60.2 degrees. She took the thermometer around the school and said she found the temperature in a tunnel between the 1922 and 1980 buildings was 48 degrees. Classrooms near the tunnel were in the low 50s that morning, she said.

Donoghue said last week the heat broke in six classrooms and the city is waiting on parts to repair the system. In the meantime, teachers have the option to move to other classrooms, she said.

Students Forchoh and Karina Tenus, a senior, said while heat is an ongoing issue in the school, the choir room in the 1922 building has improved.

Donoghue said the city performed repairs on the room’s heating system last week.

Over the summer, the city installed heating units at the Riddick Fieldhouse used by the high school. The $255,000 investment, did not extend to the high school’s classroom buildings, which still have the same heating units as last year, according to Donoghue.

“We were dealing with the fieldhouse because that was quite honestly a crisis,” she said.

Gas leaks originating from two heating units in the roof of the gymnasium caused the evacuation of thousands of students on April 10. It was the second gas leak in the school in less than a week. By the time the city allocated money for the heating units later that month, students had already missed three days due to gas leaks.

The school also closed in early January 2018 after temperatures in the building reportedly dropped below 50 degrees in some classrooms.

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins

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