By Bob Skolnik
Air conditioning continues to be a hot topic at Lyons Township High School, and this year's warm September has added to the concerns of those pushing for installation of air conditioning throughout the two campuses.
At last week's school board meeting, the mother of an LTHS freshman implored the District 204 school board to move quickly to add more air conditioning to the school.
"I think we all agree that a cooler environment provides a more positive learning and teacher experience," said Carrie Jenke during the public comment portion of the Sept. 17 board meeting. "As a taxpayer and parent, I expect a top notch, competitive school and learning environment for our students. Surrounding districts have made these investments in their buildings."
Jenke said students and teachers suffer from extreme heat at two wings of the freshman/sophomore South Campus in Western Springs.
Approximately 50 percent of LTHS' North Campus is air conditioned, while only about 30 percent of the South Campus is air conditioned.
Approximately 10 to 15 other people came to meeting, including former school board candidate Ricardo Martinez, came to the meeting to support the request for more air conditioning, but Jenke was the only person from the group who addressed the board.
Martinez, who made the need for air conditioning at LTHS a central feature of his unsuccessful run for the school board earlier this year, made his feelings known by wearing a Miami Heat basketball jersey over a shirt.
School board President Tom Cushing delivered a rare response to the public comment, taking more than eight minutes to address the issue of air conditioning.
Cushing, in what he said was only his third public response to public comment since he became board president in 2015, said that school board is well aware of the need for more air conditioning and described how the district added some air conditioning in both 2014 and 2016.
"We spent millions of dollars in 2014 on projects that included air conditioning," Cushing said, pointing to air conditioning the Reber Center and the cafeteria on North Campus as well as adding a new chiller tower with excess capacity to make adding more air conditioning to North Campus easier in the future.
In 2016, the district spent about $3.8 million from its reserve fund to air condition about 15 classrooms at the North Campus.
"The important thing is that people know that we're not just thinking about air conditioning but that we have done it, and we have spent millions of dollars in 2014 and 2016 to do it," said Cushing in a subsequent interview with the Landmark.
Cushing said that last year the school board decided to hold off on spending approximately $3 million to air condition two wings at South Campus because of other pressing needs. He said that it would cost about $24 million to fully air condition both campuses.
"The fact of the matter is we don't have $24 million to put into air conditioning all at once," Cushing said. "What we also know from our architects is that it's not feasible, in terms of our operations, to do it in such a manner."
Cushing said the district has three ways of paying for air conditioning: using money from its capital projects budget, spending down reserves, or raising money from a bond issue.
LTHS typically issues bonds every 10 years, and the most recent bond issue will be paid off in 2023. The school district has not held a referendum for more than 50 years and currently has about $38.7 million in reserves.
Such a large reserve is a major factor in LTHS being only one of seven schools in Illinois to have a AAA bond rating, Cushing said.
The board seems committed to adding more air conditioning, probably as soon as next summer. The board's Facilities Committee discussed air conditioning at its September meeting and the committee will discuss the subject again at its next meeting on Oct. 17.
"The focus now continues to be phasing in air conditioning as we move forward, and we are focused particularly on South Campus," Cushing said.
Interviewed after the meeting, Martinez and a few parents said that they are looking for action not talk and want the board to adopt a firm plan to add more air conditioning as soon as possible.
"This is a safety issue, this is an equity issue and an education issue," said Martinez, adding that classrooms need to be air conditioned, not just large spaces like the Reber Center.
Martinez and others want to board to act as fast as possible while recognizing that more air conditioning will have to be added in phases.
"We're asking not to wait for that bond issue moment for progress," Martinez said. "We don't want to wait until 2023."