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Bonds seen as only solution to Corona air problem

By: M.V. Moorehead

March 8, 2008   

Only one workable solution appears to have emerged as officials narrow their search for ways to repair the dangerously antiquated heating and air conditioning system at Corona del Sol High School.

Since a widely reported meeting at the school 10 days ago, district officials have begun to focus more closely on recommendations that would place a $35-40 million Class B bond proposal on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Such a measure would provide funding not only to replace Corona’s ailing system, say officials, but ensure that enough money is left over to accommodate needed maintenance at other district schools.

At a public meeting held Feb. 26 at Corona, Superintendent Steve Adolph discussed a variety of options that were being considered now that a judge has upheld the state’s ongoing refusal to provide funding.

Although Tempe schools recently joined both the Sierra Vista and Williams unified districts in their lawsuit against the state for overdue funding, attorneys for the districts say it could be five years or more before that suit is settled.

Even then, noted the plaintiffs’ attorney, Spencer Smith, there is no assurance the schools would prevail.

Instead of floating a bond measure or awaiting the outcome of legal action, district planners also have considered placing a capital override on the same November ballot as the one that would be used for the bonds.

With an override, however, funding would be available only for the Corona work, likely depleting the district’s spending capacity for its other high schools.

Clearly, observers predicted, such an approach would be heavily opposed, with minimal chance of approval, because the beneficiary would be only one school. Moreover, a similar override was rejected by voters four months ago.

While Corona’s needs have attracted the most attention in recent months, it isn’t the only school in need of repairs. District Facilities Manager Bob Anderson advised that Desert Vista High School, for example, needs $1.8 million to replace a leaky roof.

Anderson, along with Diane Meulemans, the district’s chief financial officer, noted that some preliminary work at Corona already has been completed, but not enough to solve the problem.

“Mold remediation and abatement was completed last year at a cost of $84,000, of which the district’s insurance company paid $25,000,” said Meulemans.

The district also has spent or will be spending approximately $6 million to begin a four-phase replacement of the school’s HVAC system.

Phase I, involving replacement of the chiller unit that produces cool air, is already finished, according to Anderson.

Phases II and III, covering replacement of new supply loops for chilled water and upgrades to the electrical system, are currently under way.

Both Anderson and Meuleman emphasize, however, that the remaining $11 million cost of critical Phase IV work, which involves replacing the entire air distribution system, including the larger duct components and air handlers compatible with the new chiller and supply-loop infrastructure, is the portion that the state has refused to fund.

Left unresolved, therefore, is the issue of elevated carbon-dioxide levels in the air and the inability of the 30-year-old system to adequately circulate fresh air, Anderson said.

The cost of that Phase IV is so high, say officials, because it requires new ductwork and air handlers, ceiling demolition and reconfiguration of ceiling cavities.

In answer to critics who have suggested that $17 million seems excessive, officials point out that the project was put out to bid in accordance with the district’s procurement code and Arizona Revised Statutes.

McCarthy Building Companies Inc., of St. Louis, Mo., was awarded the project.

As the problem continues to confront district planners, worries mount. Meulemans said her daughter will begin her freshman year at Corona in the fall and that she shares the same concerns as other parents who expect their child to breathe fresh, clean air during the school day.

One teacher reportedly has asked students to bring live plants into the classroom to help absorb what might be considered toxic materials in the air.

Although local coverage has concentrated on Corona’s air-quality problems in recent months, it’s not the only district that has experienced maintenance problems.

McCarthy engineers recently completed $16.7 million in renovations to high schools in Glendale and a new elementary school in Chandler.

As to what the future holds, the outcome of a bond election in November would determine whether Corona will be able to make the necessary replacements or be forced to explore scheduling or other alternatives to minimize the effects of fouled air.

Emphasized Meueleman:

“Without funding, the district will not be able to complete HVAC upgrades at Corona del Sol High School.”

Should voters decide a Class B Bond is the best means to get the job done, it would be Meueleman’s job to write the enabling legal documents.

But no decision on how or if to use the bond approach has yet been made, and district officials are pondering whether they can galvanize support from voters who believe safe and well-maintained public schools are important.

The November election is less than eight months away, and the ballot will be crowded, so a decision needs to be made, committees formed and the task of educating a predictably reluctant public launched soon.



Photo by David Stone


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