Flint, MI—The Flint Board of Education passed a project proposal Sept. 16 to install central air conditioning in eight buildings. The approved project will also keep the Flint Jr. High building, formerly Northwestern, running until next year despite it being closed to students.

The unanimous vote came after the board learned they would not receive $6.6 million from the State of Michigan for chiller units. The project was part of a larger $19 million contract with Johnson Controls, the Flint Community Schools’ HVAC company, to make district-wide building updates and repairs. The original scope included “laying up” or boarding up Northwestern to take it out of service.

“With having a reduction in funding, what we’re trying to do is figure out what projects were most important,” Carrie Sekelsky, FCS executive director of finance, said.

All board members agreed that air conditioning was a top priority. Doyle-Ryder Elementary, Eisenhower Elementary, Brownell STEM Academy, Freeman Elementary, Holmes STEM Middle School Academy, Neithercut Elementary, Pierce Elementary, Potter Elementary and the Administration Building will have central air once it is safe to return to in-person learning.

Air conditioning has been an ongoing problem for the district since they adopted a balanced calendar, meaning students go to school all year round. In the past, classes have been canceled due to sweltering temperatures.

“We [promised] we would put air conditioning in all of our buildings and that has been a pledge from the district for years,” Trustee Blake Strozier said during a board meeting on Sept. 9.

But installing central air means the district will not be able to take Northwestern out of service until next year. They will continue to incur utility costs, an estimated $200,000 a year.

Due to Northwestern’s state of disrepair, the risk of a “catastrophic event,” like the pipes bursting, is high, Daniel Mack, energy solutions account executive at Johnson Controls, said.

The situation is further compounded by the fact that Flint Schools’ central kitchen is located inside of Northwestern. Properly laying up the building and installing a firewall between the kitchen and the rest of the building would prevent a catastrophe, he said.

“This is a complicated issue. The decision was made to move central kitchen there. The issue with that building is it’s a very large building. Central kitchen takes up a small area and the mechanical systems, control systems, lighting systems are in terrible shape,” Mack said.

The board voted to move central kitchen, a near $1 million investment, to Northwestern in 2018 after being forced to vacate from an off-campus location, Treasurer Danielle Green said.

Putting kitchen in Northwestern was presented as a self-funded project that would provide savings to the district, but the board was not informed about the extent to which the building needed repair, she said.

“My issue along with other board members’ issue is we have to do something with central kitchen again. Unfortunately, the prior administration gave us false information, misleading information and partial information.”

In July, the board voted to close the building to students after learning it needed $4 million in repairs to be compliant with state regulations.

Several board members pointed towards Johnson Controls as a source of misinformation.

“I hate to be disrespectful to JCI but from my understanding, you all were supposed to go through this when they did the assessment. So, I’m kind of curious as to why this is coming up now…They [came] before us at least seven times with their suggestions,” Strozier said.

Green echoed his concerns while adding the administration should be smarter about doing business. “We should have been given worst-case scenario…Moving forward, we need to get that information from someone with no skin in the game.”

Mack said the project was a “moving target” and that the scope was adjusted several times based on decisions by the board.

“It’d be wonderful to do all the things we want to do with everything but we can’t. So, we have to do the best we can with what we have for our kids, and air conditioning…that’s at the top of the list,” Ramsdell said.

The board will “hope and pray” a catastrophic event does not occur, President Casey Lester said.

The proposal passed 4-2 with Vice President Diana Wright, Green, Trustee Vera Perry and Ramsdell in favor. Strozier and Trustee Carol McIntosh were not present.

Carmen Nesbitt is a journalist with diverse experience in news reporting and feature writing. She wrote for Hour Detroit and SEEN Magazine before joining the Flint Beat news team as an education and public...