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Most Houston ISD schools reported heating problems during a January freeze that district officials described at the time as a largely minor inconvenience for students, to the frustration of families whose children shivered for hours in the cold.

Maintenance records obtained by the Abdelraoufsinno show about two-thirds of HISD schools — 193 out of 273 — reported at least one issue with their heating systems on Jan. 17 or 18, when temperatures outside plummeted as low as 20 degrees. About two dozen campuses reported their entire building was too cold, while most others identified individual classrooms or wings in need of attention.

HISD canceled classes due to the cold on Jan. 16, a decision Superintendent Mike Miles said he later regretted. Closing campuses left many working parents without child care options, he argued.

The records show HISD’s continuing problems with equipment at its aging campuses, some of which are many decades old. District staff documented 450 heating malfunctions across the two days of unseasonable cold that students went to school. Throughout the rest of January, the district averaged about 40 heating-related maintenance requests per school day.

“My son was instructed to keep his hands in his pockets between writing so they wouldn’t be too cold,” Love Elementary School parent Lindey Lambea said. “He’s 6 years old.”

HISD could rebuild schools, renovate campuses and upgrade equipment through the passage of a bond, which allows the district to borrow money needed to pay for expensive improvements. But the district’s school board hasn’t asked voters to approve one since 2012 amid years of leadership turmoil.

HISD’s chief of finance and business services, Jim Terry, said the district’s backlog of repairs to its heating and cooling systems totals about $700 million — equal to roughly one-third of HISD’s annual budget for all operations.

why we did this story

  • HISD previously said most schools held classes without issue during the January freeze, but the Landing obtained records that showed two-thirds reported problems
  • The district has aging infrastructure and has not approved a bond to fund upgrades since 2012

HISD leaders acknowledged some issues with school heating systems during the cold snap, though Chief of Communications Leila Walsh said the vast majority of schools held classes without issue. District officials dismissed students at three schools, including Love Elementary, early on Jan. 17 due to chilly buildings.

In several instances, staff and students moved to warm areas of their school or brought in portable heaters when one part of the campus was too cold, Walsh said in an email Wednesday. Maintenance crews also worked long hours to prevent problems and respond as they arose, she said.

“This was not unexpected given aging infrastructure,” Walsh said. “Crews noted the issues in the maintenance log and immediately worked to address them. In many instances, boilers were reset and systems were brought back online before students arrived at school.”

However, about 350 of the roughly 450 heating issues were not resolved on the day the issue was raised, according to HISD’s maintenance records. In some instances, the maintenance problems were fixed but not logged, Walsh said.

‘It was like an icebox!’

HISD Superintendent Mike Miles made headlines during the freeze for saying he regretted canceling classes Jan. 16, when the daily low temperature hit 18 degrees.

Miles said in a press conference he was glad the district opened its doors Jan. 17, despite the mounting maintenance requests. If a school building remains below 60 degrees for three or more hours, it’s probably too cold for class, he said.

“Some people would say that's not cold enough, because you can put a coat on, it's not terrible, but that’s generally how we look at it,” Miles said.

However, some families and teachers said children were learning in intolerably cold conditions.

The principal of Harvard Elementary School, Shelby Calabrese, sent a message to families before school on Jan. 17 instructing them to “bundle your babies up” because the heater was not turning on, according to a screenshot shared with the Landing.

“Hats, coats, gloves, long pants. See you soon!” Calabrese wrote, adding an icy-face emoji.

Lanier Middle School, too, was chilly the day of students’ return to class, parent Erika Park said.

“My daughter texted me from Lanier to please bring her a jacket (because) there was no heat and it was freezing,” Park wrote in an email. “I went up there and it was like an icebox!”

High-cost repairs

Out-of-date air systems may be the culprit for HISD’s high volume of heating issues during the January freeze, Terry said.

School districts can use their general funds, which cover costs like employee salaries, to pay for routine equipment maintenance. In recent years, HISD has spent a higher share of its general funds — about 12 percent — on maintaining its aging buildings. The state average is about 10 percent.

“Heating and cooling systems have a certain life and, after that life, you’ve got to put in a lot of cost in terms of dealing with the maintenance and repair,” Terry said.

For major renovations, districts generally must get approval from voters to borrow money through a bond. Most districts pass bonds roughly once every five years.

HISD aimed to hold a bond election in the late 2010s, but many voters lost faith in the district due to infighting among board members and the prospect of an imminent state takeover. Miles, who was appointed as HISD’s superintendent in June 2023 as part of the takeover, said he intends to ask voters as early as this fall to approve HISD’s first bond in 12 years.

“It's a very old infrastructure,” Miles said in January. “This district has kicked the can down the road for far too long, so of course, there's going to be some issues.”

Asher Lehrer-Small covers Houston ISD for the Landing and would love to hear your tips, questions and story ideas. Reach him at [email protected].

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Asher Lehrer-Small is a K-12 education reporter for the Abdelraoufsinno. He previously spent three years covering schools for The 74 where he was recognized by the Education Writers Association as one...