complex simplicityFor any school-aged Hamilton residents reading this because of a headline that seemed to confirm your misgivings about the local educational institutions, I’m afraid I must disappoint you. I can only attest that, in a long-term view, school is essential, and if you’re lucky, sometimes kind of interesting and fun.

But cool? Since my kids started school six years ago, I’ve been amazed that despite radical advances in technology and methodology, including smartboards and computerized tests, most Hamilton classrooms still don’t have air conditioning.

Why don’t they? At a basic level, I get it. There are lots of residents without kids in school, whose primary concern is the amount of school taxes they pay; who didn’t have the benefit of air conditioning in school when they were growing up, and thus, don’t see the need to coddle the current generation.

I can relate to all that, but I also sympathize with the kids—I remember those still-sweltering days in September and October, and especially May and June, when it was a battle just to keep my eyes open, let alone learn anything.

Because of special needs arising from children with asthma and other health issues, window-installed room air conditioners can be found in some Hamilton classrooms, and since these devices clearly seemed capable of the job, I wondered why they weren’t installed in every class. I heard a variety of reasons, all couched in disclaimers that “this is just what I heard” or ” I don’t know if it’s true, but…”.

Among them: 1) it would be too expensive to purchase them; 2) it would be too expensive to run them; 3) the buildings aren’t wired properly for it; 4) it’s unfair to outfit some schools and not others.

I decided to seek clarification through Superintendent Thomas Ficarra’s office, and was informed that “Options ranging from installation of units in classrooms to building-wide air conditioning system upgrades have been considered. Costs for these options—including necessary electrical service and other related upgrades—were estimated at between $50 and $80 million dollars district-wide.”

With 24 schools in Hamilton, even the low end of that estimate would average over $2 million per school, which seems high. Requests for documentation regarding this estimate went unanswered, so I conducted an informal poll of electricians, which also failed to shed much light on the subject, as the professionals all felt it would be unprofessional to offer an opinion without exact specifications. An informal poll of non-electricians, told of the district’s $50 million estimate, yielded several variations of the phrase, “Wow, I should have become an electrician.”

There are several academic studies showing that high temperatures lead directly to steep declines in learning ability and test performance. I agree that it’s ethically unfair to keep some classrooms cool and others not, but that’s exactly the situation now. So, how long until some enterprising attorney decides to file a class-action suit against the school district for unfair treatment?

There will soon be a referendum seeking approval for much-needed repairs to some of Hamilton’s aging schools, and in principle, I would urge voters to support it; even if you don’t have kids who will benefit directly from these expenditures, school quality is one of the biggest factors driving real estate valuations, so in that sense, it affects every homeowner in Hamilton.

Air conditioning won’t be one of the priorities—Ficarra has wisely decided to focus “strictly on needs,” reducing the original facility assessment from $227.6 million to $53.7 million, “with an eye towards limiting the tax impact.” But voters will need more than “trust us” before signing off on what’s still a rather large check, and the superintendent’s recommendation to curtail video recording of meetings, and the school board’s 7-2 vote approving the measure, combined with the lack of specifics on the air conditioning issue, indicate that communication with the public needs to be improved.

Part of the district’s plan is to use the requested money to repair roofs, which would allow Hamilton to implement a solar energy plan, like neighboring Robbinsville. Perhaps savings from solar panels could mitigate the costs of air conditioning the schools? There are a lot of unknowns, but it looks like it’ll be a long wait for Hamilton’s huddled, sweating masses, yearning to keep cool.

The state of affairs in Hamilton’s schools—action needed on critical renovations, a potentially contentious referendum looming, and a long summer lingering—reminds me of a line from Game of Thrones that could be interpreted, for Hamilton, much as it is in the fictional land of Westeros: as an ominous word of warning, a call to arms or just an indicator of cooler temperatures approaching, and with it, relief from the heat at last.

Winter is coming.

Peter Dabbene’s website is peterdabbene.com. His story “The Tomato Trial” can be read here. His graphic novels ARK and Robin Hood, and his books Glossolalia and Spamming the Spammers are available through Amazon.