Tonganoxie school without heat for weeks with no relief in sight for months

Education

TONGANOXIE, Kan. — On an April day that felt like winter, one local school was without heat in much of the building. Parents in Tonganoxie are now worried about how long the district says it could take to fix. 

Next to a cow pasture sits a new elementary school in Tonganoxie. It’s only been open about five years but is already dealing with a major issue for students and staff. 

“On February 10, the principal, Mr. Mann, emailed out just a generic email said the heat’s not working but alluded to the fact that it was getting fixed, so all us parents were like, ‘That’s one stress I don’t have to worry about,’” parent Krista Callaghan said. 

But this week, as temperatures dropped outside, so did the temperatures inside the school, at times hovering around 50 degrees. A major HVAC problem in the building has been keeping some parts of the elementary warm — and others frigid. 

Callaghan sent her second-grader to school with blankets, only for the principal to say they weren’t allowed. 

“These kids are huddling next to space heaters, which you can’t focus like that. How much learning is really going on when you don’t want to sit next to the window because you’re extremely cold and huddled up next to a space heater, which isn’t safe?” Callaghan said. 

Tonganoxie’s superintendent agreed to meet with FOX4, then declined an on-camera interview. Instead, he referred us to an email sent to district parents. 

So far, nearly $70,000 has been poured into repairing the school’s heating and cooling system, most recently $23,000 on what turned out to be a Band-Aid fix that may need to be done all over again. 

The district’s using contingency funds to pay for it but is hopeful costs will be largely covered by building and manufacturer warranties. 

“To know that it’s only 5 years old and having this major of an issue where they don’t even know what’s wrong with it and that it can’t be repaired for around 18 months, that it’s going to be a long process, is very frustrating,” Callaghan said.  

District leaders insist they share that frustration and said nothing like this has happened in Tonganoxie schools before. For now, everyone’s asked to bundle up and use portable heaters when needed. 

Maintenance staff is working to identify what’s wrong and make repairs, but because of the size of the system, going through to test everything and fix things along the way could take up to a year — or longer. 

The district doesn’t believe the air conditioning side of the system is impacted as much, so right now, they’re not concerned about schools getting too hot at the end of this school year or when classes resume in August. 


You can read the district’s full message here: 

A Message from the Superintendent 

I’m writing this message to the staff and parents of USD 464 Tonganoxie students. I feel as though it’s extremely important for me to address the recent development of the inconsistent HVAC issues in our Tonganoxie Elementary School. I also feel it’s extremely important to concentrate on the facts of this situation. Foremost and most importantly we care deeply about our students and teachers learning environment. It is extremely important that we keep the learning environment in a state best situated for them to do that based upon the circumstances. Tonganoxie Elementary School administration and staff love our students. I’ve never worked in a school district that works so hard to build relationships and show how important our student’s education is each and every day. 

Our student’s education and safety is our number one priority. Because of that focus, we are doing as much as we possibly can to monitor and control the space temperatures. They are not perfect and they are not a long term solution, but when compared to the alternatives of going remote, our experiences with that, and the impact to parents, we feel at this time this is the better of two options as we assess why these units are failing close to 10 years sooner than what is typically expected. That is an evaluation we make almost on a daily basis. The things we are doing include purchasing heaters for the classroom and checking temperature before school starts to confirm classroom temperatures are above 63-65 degrees. Some classrooms are more easily maintained than others so there is some variance in that, but overall we have been seeing through measurements that we can manage that for the short term. It’s a day by day assessment where we work closely with staff. 

The Tonganoxie Elementary School building is relatively new so this has been a big surprise. We are a district that budgets significant money for preventive maintenance to avoid this type of issue and it has worked well on our other buildings. This is actually our newest building and these units which are VRF (Variable Refrigerant Flow) Units are about half way through what we would expect to be their useful life. Our professional technicians are still trying to figure out why this is occurring. Since we are talking about so many units, the fix is going to be very expensive so we want to make sure we actually solve the problem. For example, if the problem is related to the piping connecting the units, then simply spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace the units over a year’s time would only result in those new units failing too. We have already spent quite a lot of money doing fixes that end up lasting at times only a matter of days. At the moment our professional technician experts say it appears to be some mix of electrical and mechanical issues. 

The process to implement the final solution will take time. The scale of the issue is such that it is not just a week long fix we can do over a holiday break. We will need to prioritize the units which appear to be the most impacted and systematically go through most of the building. That process could take a year or more. Unfortunately some have misunderstood that to mean nothing will be done until 2022, and we want to make sure everyone knows that is not the case.  I wan to emphasize that even if we ordered all new VRF HVAC Units the delivery time in those systems would take months to arrive from the HVAC Units manufacturers.  So there is no possible way we could repair the HVAC systems this summer. 

In our short term solution we will continue to repair the existing units as best we can.  We are experiencing electrical surges, blown fuses, cassette failures and computer failure that monitors the temperatures in each room.  There is no consistency in our HVAC issues at this time. Since the beginning of the fiscal year (July 1, 2020) we have spent $69,431 in repairs to the HVAC systems at TES. 

We have contacted the companies that installed the original equipment seven years ago.  We plan to consult with the original building and equipment providers closely in this repair process. Again, this is such a significant sum of money that we want to make sure we actually fix why this happening long term. Fortunately we are in a situation where we have saved up contingency funds for unforeseen issues such as this, but that is not usually intended to deal with such a large single issue. We are assessing how this might impact budgets over the next several years. 

The number one thing I want to address and stress with this message is our positive focus on the students, the teachers, and how we are working to maintain a solid educational environment. Secondly, this is an extremely difficult situation that is complex enough that even the experts are struggling to understand why this has happened. It is my goal, and the goal of the USD 464 Board of Education to fix this HVAC issue correctly so we can have a reliable solution long term. If we have to replace the units every 5-7 years, then that just takes money away from our core mission of educating students. 

Thank you for taking the time to read this long, complicated message.  I’m extremely proud of this school district, and having this type of HVAC issue is not a pleasant experience for anyone involved.  I just want to assure you we are working on a solution that benefits our students, staff and school district as quickly as possible.  Thank you for your time, Loren Feldkamp – Superintendent 

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