A faulty boiler and other problems at a District middle school forced teachers and students to wear coats, hats and gloves yesterday as they braved temperatures that dipped to the fifties inside some classrooms.
The problems at the Taft Junior High School building in Brookland, which is temporarily housing Lincoln Middle School, have existed since September. But a long and cold weekend, combined with a cut in weekend building services, ensured a cold start to the week.
"There is some heat," the school's principal, Enrique Watson, said about 5 p.m., adding that his office was cold. "It's not that it's an iceberg on every floor, but it's not sufficient to warm all 400 students that we have here."
Watson said he has reported the problem "countless" times to the D.C. public school system's central office, and that facilities management had been trying to make repairs to the boiler system as late as yesterday.
The problem was exacerbated by at least five broken windows -- three in classrooms, one in a stairwell and one in a hallway. Aside from being the temporary home to Lincoln as its building is modernized in Northwest Washington, Taft permanently houses an alternative program called CHOICE and a special education program.
Teacher Natasha Warsaw had a space heater in her classroom, but she said that the combination of a broken window and the malfunctioning boiler made it feel like she was outside. Warsaw coped with the cold air by taking breaks in the main office on the first floor, which was heated. She took some of her classes to the school's multipurpose room, where as many as 75 students at a time huddled to get warm.
"My toes have gone numb every hour," Warsaw said. "I can't even think in this environment, much less teach, and it's really unfair to the kids. I know if I can't focus to teach them, they can't learn, either."
Several teachers signed a memorandum complaining about the conditions that was faxed to School Superintendent Paul L. Vance and some area media outlets. Recent cutbacks in overtime pay meant maintenance staffers do not go to schools on Sundays to warm up the boilers, which may have affected as many as a dozen schools yesterday, said Sarah Woodhead, head of the facilities department. Woodhead said the school facilities officials were looking for other items to cut from their budgets to allow workers to come in on Sundays. But so far, she said, such cuts have not been identified. "We haven't figured out how to rework it yet," she said. "But it's clear that we can't have buildings this cold."
A series of problems have afflicted the Taft building this year, and Woodhead said repairs have been ongoing. Of the three boilers in the building, one has not been a problem, another has been repaired and the third is being fixed. Heating systems also were not installed in three new classrooms that were created to accommodate Lincoln students. Woodhead said she did not know why that equipment was not installed.
Low temperatures are an unfortunate reality in some schools because of aging buildings, pipes and equipment. "Unfortunately, the problems are not that unusual for us," said Woodhead. "It's not a good thing and it's not acceptable, and we're working really hard to try to turn those situations around."
Woodhead said that she did not know about the broken windows but several had been replaced over the summer. At a news conference on budget issues yesterday, Vance said the school system has 14,000 open work orders and needs money to pay for repairs.
Jeff Bale, who teaches English as a second language, said that he was teaching some of his classes in a hallway heated by radiators. Eight or nine other classes were so uncomfortable that the students were moved to the multipurpose room to keep warm.
"We're suffering over here," said Bale, who is the building's representative for the Washington Teachers' Union. "We shouldn't be asked to work like this. The kids can't study."