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Air-conditioning controversy gets heated in Downers Grove District 58

A rooftop air-conditioning unit at Pierce Downer Elementary School is at the center of a controversy in Downers Grove Grade School District 58 as some residents contend the district decided not to use the unit since it was installed in 2013.
A rooftop air-conditioning unit at Pierce Downer Elementary School is at the center of a controversy in Downers Grove Grade School District 58 as some residents contend the district decided not to use the unit since it was installed in 2013.

DOWNERS GROVE – A rooftop air-conditioning unit at Pierce Downer Elementary School in Downers Grove is at the center of a controversy in Downers Grove Grade School District 58.

But the residents who are at the center of the dispute say the district’s failure to tell the truth about the air-conditioning unit is the real issue of concern.

The controversy started in late August when resident Kylie Spahn, a school district watchdog, notified the community via a Facebook post that Pierce Downer had turned on an air-conditioning unit in its addition that had been installed five years ago.

"For five years, that unit has sat idle on the rooftop of the Pierce Downer addition," Spahn said at the Oct. 10 Board of Education meeting.

The district responded to Spahn’s Facebook post with a letter to Pierce Downer parents that stated schoolwide air conditioning was beyond the scope and budget of the 2013 addition.

“Thus, the architect designed the project with specifications for a rooftop unit to provide heat for the addition with an opportunity for future air conditioning capabilities. The rooftop has been used accordingly for heat since its installation,” the district said in its letter.

However, Spahn and fellow watchdog Tracy Weiner maintain the district’s letter to parents is untrue and misleading.

“Since Aug. 28, I have had at least six current or former district employees, including a former board member, come to me privately and tell me that the letter distributed to Pierce Downer families is untrue and a misrepresentation of actual events,” Weiner said at the board meeting. “Contrary to what was stated in [Superintendent Kari] Cremascoli’s letter to families, the rooftop unit did in fact have air conditioning capabilities when it was installed.”

Weiner said she called Johnson Controls to obtain the details of the service call they provided at Pierce Downer in August.

“It was a firmware update to the district computer, allowing the computer and rooftop unit to talk to each other for $1,900,” she said.

Spahn and Weiner obtained Johnson Controls' invoice for the service call via the Freedom of Information Act. The duo also garnered numerous emails between district officials and other documents while researching the issue over the past several weeks.

Cremascoli refuted the claims made by Spahn and Weiner.

“The air conditioning was not functional,” Cremascoli said during an Oct. 16 telephone interview.

She added that over the summer, the district’s buildings and grounds team re-evaluated the possibility of having air conditioning at the school.

“They went with my support to explore what would be needed,” Cremascoli said. “What I do know is more work had to be done. There was work that needed to be done to make it functional.”

In an Aug. 27 email to Pierce Downer staff, Principal Christine Collins said she received an update about the air conditioning from Kevin Barto, the district's director of buildings and grounds.

"They attempted to turn on the unit, but the controls aren't working. They tried to fix it in-house but were unable to," Collins said.

The Aug. 31 invoice submitted to the district by Johnson Controls and obtained by Weiner makes no mention of parts installed during the service call. Instead, the district was billed $1,949 for inspection, troubleshooting and work on the HVAC controls, according to the invoice.

“Now that you have the invoice from Johnson Controls, can you explain to me what additional mechanicals needed to be added? There are no parts on this invoice. Only labor," Weiner said in a Sept. 20 email to Cremascoli.

Two days later, Cremascoli responded to Weiner's inquires about the service call.

“As we discussed the other day, I do not know the specifics of the actual service call, but I do know I supported the recommendation to re-evaluate the additional mechanical work needed to make the air conditioning units functional in the rooftop unit and that the building and grounds team pursued that work with the hopes of having the rooftop unit provide air conditioning as well as heat within the three-classroom addition," Cremascoli said.

During the Oct. 16 telephone interview, she said there was no effort in the letter to mislead Pierce Downer parents.

"I believe the communication to parents is absolutely the truth," Cremascoli said. "I really don't believe anyone was doing anything intentional to mislead."

She added, however, the district's letter should have been issued sooner.

Spahn said the district needs to be honest about the decision not to use the air conditioning.

"I want the district to accept ownership for the poor decision to not utilize the air conditioning at Pierce Downer," she said. "I would like the administration to apologize to the teachers and parents of Pierce Downer School."

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