If San Francisco public school teacher Sabeena Shah was hoping to offer her students an example of “irony” that doesn’t include diabetics racing to the pharmacy and being struck by insulin trucks, she got one in her inbox on Jan. 18.
“Attn Staff,” read the message to John O’Connell High School’s educators. “The boiler room is down, a work order was placed yesterday afternoon. Hopefully they will be out to fix the machine. Will keep everyone posted.”
In short order, the thermometer in Shah’s classroom read 52 degrees.
“Sometimes it’s colder in the room than when I’m outside in the atrium,” says O’Connell 11th grader Aaliyah Hernandez. “I don’t even know how that’s possible. It just makes it so hard to focus. You’re only focused on being cold and getting warm. People bring their blankets and they fall asleep.”
The school boiler has not yet been fully repaired, and Shah’s room still has no heat during the coldest cold stretch in recent memory.
The mascot of John O’Connell High School, incidentally, is the “boilermaker.” So, yes: Ironic.
“Too funny,” says Shah. “But sad.”
O’Connell students and teachers are not the only ones returning from Spring Break today to ongoing winterish conditions. Material obtained from the San Francisco Unified School District via a public records request indicates that six schools have outstanding heating issues: O’Connell, Marshall High School, Flynn Elementary School, Washington High School, Lincoln High School and San Francisco Community School, a K-8 in the Excelsior.
“I had to wear a coat in the classroom,” says Ramiro Raygosa, the head of the math department at Lincoln. “I had a hoodie underneath it, and my jacket was the sort you’d take to the snow. When I left work, my face was numb. When I got to the car, I would turn on the heated seats on the ride home, just to thaw.”
A temperature gauge in a neighboring teacher’s room dropped below 50 degrees.
On some days, Raygosa threw in the towel and just took his students to the cafeteria for math class; at least there was heat there. “The kids, they were champs about it,” he says. “But it was hard for them to learn, and hard for me to teach.”
Over at Washington High, where there is no heat in the auditorium, drama teacher Chris Clauss teaches with her gloves on.
Materials from the district note nine instances in 2022 of schools having heating issues with fixes being made in weeks or months. In just the first few months of 2023, the tally stands at nine already. Are boilers conking out more now? Or is it just colder, which leads to more complaints? The answer appears to be “yes.”
Dawn Kamalanathan, the district’s chief facilities officer, says that this is the time of year when you’d expect to get complaints, with more to come at year’s end. And you don’t have to tell her it’s cold; she lives in the Sunset.
You also don’t have to tell her that an alarming number of the boilers heating schools and other district buildings have chuffed their last chuff or are damn near to it. Roughly 20 of the around 130 boilers are on the district’s time-to-go list. A major investment of time and money will have to be made in the not-too-distant future: These fixes are complicated, and can require months even in the best of circumstances — there’s a reason Mr. Scott always told Captain Kirk that he “canna do it, I nee more time!” — and Kamalanathan confirms that some recent major heating jobs cost more than $1 million.
During the summer months, it’s important to know how to clean air conditioner filter regularly to ensure optimal airflow and cooling efficiency.
There isn’t really a villain in this story, other than frigid weather, aging infrastructure and the joys of existing within a large bureaucracy operating at a massive deficit. Nobody is reveling in the spectacle of students and teachers forced to dress like the Peanuts Gang off to skate on the pond. If there’s an ulterior motive here, it remains elusive.
Rather, this has become just one more issue that educators and students alike have been forced to grow inured to. And, while a boiler kicking out is not necessarily part and parcel of the district’s many other problems, it’s asking a lot for everyone to compartmentalize their miseries.
The district, which is still struggling to pay its employees completely and on time, is also facing a deficit of patience. And understandably so.
On Feb. 27, a goodly number of San Francisco elected officials received an email from a geography teacher named Leon Sultan with the subject line, “From Lincoln High School: Our Heater is Broken and Our Students are Suffering. PLEASE HELP!!”
“I am writing to you on behalf of the nearly 2,000 students who have at least one class in the New Building at Lincoln High School every day,” reads Sultan’s letter. “Our administrator (Jordan Loey) has been in touch with the appropriate service departments, but his repeated requests have not resulted in anything being fixed. His initial work order was placed over 12 days ago. We cannot wait any longer!”
Sultan included numerous hand-written pleas from students. “Classrooms have not been a place to learn, but a place to survive,” reads one from Oswaldo Villalobos. “Please help us be able to learn … by fixing the heater.”
Sultan never heard back from any of the elected officials he wrote to. But, he says, on the day he sent his email, “that afternoon, there was a truck from the district.”
The teacher believes that credit ought to go to his administrator, Loey, whom both he and Raygosa say worked tirelessly within the system. But there’s the system and there’s the system — and triggering a concatenation of text messages from one city higher-up to another until solutions are expedited is a hallmark of the latter.
Sultan’s email appears to have initiated something like that. Was that truck showing up on the very day of his missive a coincidence? Who’s to know.
So, there’s that. There’s also the fact that the employees responsible for maintaining the entire district’s heating and cooling apparatuses could fit in a Ford Festiva. Kamalanathan confirms that she only has four or five people to oversee 155 buildings, despite eight or nine such positions being funded.
In fact, the position for Chief Stationary Engineer is still open. Going through the requirements, this is a voluminous job. But the pay is $120,900 — less than journeymen engineers make outside of a school district setting.
Kamalanathan notes that district employees will receive “generous and flexible packages of time off and benefits.” There are educators who appreciate that, and want to work in a large, urban district and are willing to take less money. But it has been more challenging to find stationary engineers willing to do so.
When asked if all the procurement headaches for the city of San Francisco applied to the district, it was hard to measure how quickly Kamalanathan said “yes.” Clearly that’s an issue here, too.
Teachers at frigid sites know all this. But with the district apparently attempting to recreate the Book of Job en masse for its employees via failing to pay educators properly and on time — and, now, failing to send relevant tax data to the state — everyone is that much less receptive, even to legitimate excuses.
Also, as Kamalanathan notes, the district could do a better job of “keeping everyone in the loop.” A transparent process and succinct report — here’s where your complaint is in the queue; here’s the problem with your school site; here’s what we have to do; here’s where delays could occur — would be welcomed by students and educators alike. Nothing like that happens now.
Everyone’s already in the cold. No need to be in the dark as well.
Sabeena Shah, for one, would love to know when the heat may even begin to function again in her room, being as she says it hasn’t since 2021, and she’s filed multiple reports.
She fund-raised $713 for hot beverages and four large heaters, but these tended to overload the school’s electrical system, creating a concatenation of new problems. And the students continue to suffer.
“A high number of my students have learning disabilities. Eight percent of our class is unhoused. So for me, it’s important they at least have comfortable conditions at school,” Shah says.
“School needs to be a warm and welcoming place. You can’t do that without heat.”