Keeping Manatee schools cool keeps getting more expensive. This year, it could be $9 million

The school board will consider up to $9 million in spending to maintain the district’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, commonly known as HVAC units, during its meeting on Tuesday evening.

Along with general repairs throughout Manatee County schools, the money will help to replace large components of the HVAC systems at nearly 30 campuses, according to Tuesday’s board agenda. Since the agreement is listed under “consent,” alongside dozens of unrelated contracts, it could be approved with a single vote and no discussion.

Starting in 2017, there was a surge in the amount of money spent on maintaining, repairing and replacing HVAC systems at local schools and district offices.

According to past meeting minutes, board members approved the following contracts:

  • In 2014, it approved up to $750,000 in spending.
  • In 2015, it approved up to $760,000 in spending.
  • In 2016, it approved up to $650,000 in spending.
  • In 2017, it approved up to $1.5 million in spending, an agreement that increased to $6.5 million over three revisions.
  • In 2018, it approved up to $8 million in spending.
  • In 2019, it could approve up to $9 million in spending.

Todd Henson, the director of maintenance and operations for more than two decades, said his request is for a maximum of $9 million, though actual spending could be less.

He said HVAC units last approximately 10 to 15 years before they require a new boiler or chiller, the heart of a system. Other units require an updated control system, the electronic “brain” of a unit.

Henson described booming growth in the early 2000’s, fueled by the approval of a half-cent sales tax and the construction of new schools in Manatee County. Along with the sudden expansion, the school district suffered through years of financial hardship, capped by a $3.4 million deficit in the 2012-2013 budget.

The district fell behind on maintenance, he said, and now Manatee is working to catch up.

“When these systems go down it’s really hard on the school staff and teachers,” Henson said.

The district’s former chief financial officer, Rebecca Roberts, foreshadowed the higher contracts at a past board meeting. On Aug. 22, 2017, she gave an overview of the district’s capital budget, which is used for construction, maintenance, technology projects and buses, among other things.

She said capital money would be “lean” in the 2019-2020 school year, as Manatee opens new schools and maintains its existing campuses. Some of the work halted prior to 2014, leading to “emergency situations where we have to dump lots of money into projects,” Roberts continued.

“The results of not doing maintenance that we should have been doing over those years, it’s costing us now,” Roberts said at the time.

Giuseppe Sabella, education reporter for the Bradenton Herald, holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida. He spent time at the Independent Florida Alligator, the Gainesville Sun and the Florida Times-Union. His coverage of education in Manatee County earned him a first place prize in the Florida Society of News Editors’ 2019 Journalism Contest. Giuseppe also spent one year in Charleston, W.Va., earning a first-place award for investigative reporting.