School 'not cool' with temperature issue

Alamosa's elementary schools leave students and staff roasting, thanks to a negligent architecture firm that's peppered Colorado with subpar school buildings. From the Alamosa Valley Courier. Read Part One here.

After years of concerns over too-hot classrooms on the upper floors of the Alamosa Elementary Schools buildings, the cause of the problem has been determined: the buildings' ventilation systems aren't working.

The buildings, built in 2012 by the Neenan Co., a Fort Collins-based "archistruction" firm, do not have air conditioning, instead relying on a "passive cooling" system that is supposed to draw in cool air overnight and expel hot air during the day.

Classrooms on the south-facing side of the second floor of the schools are often uncomfortably hot in early fall and late spring, say school officials. Classes are scheduled so that the classrooms are empty in the afternoon, when the rooms are hottest.

Alamosa Schools administration installed additional window shades in two test classrooms in August and recorded temperatures as compared to nearby classrooms without additional window shades.

The rooms with added blinds did not register more than a single degree of difference from classrooms without the blinds.

"As anyone who's familiar with the issue knows, it's not necessarily a sun-blocking issue, but more of an air circulation and ventilation issue," said Alamosa Schools Superintendent Rob Alejo.

Having established that excessive sunlight was not the culprit, administration officials next inspected the passive cooling system.

"Well, lo and behold, our system has not and is not functioning the way it's been designed," Alejo said.

Officials contacted Neenan about the malfunctioning system.

"They've accepted full responsibility," said Alamosa Schools Director of Maintenance Charlie Jackson. "They said they thought it was working."

Neenan asserts that the system's programming was altered by someone else, said Andy Boian, a spokesperson for Neenan.

"It seems somebody adjusted the system away from how it was programmed, probably while innocently trying to adjust the temperature," said Boian, adding that Neenan responded to the news by immediately dispatching staff to reprogram the system.

Jackson said this isn't the first time the problem has been brought up with the Neenan Co.

"We met twice a year with Neenan, and we would go over issues and problems," said Jackson. "We told them we did not think that system was operational, and every time they'd say, 'Oh, no, you're mistaken, it's working fine, don't worry about it.'"

Boian said Neenan had no idea the classrooms got too hot until four weeks ago.

Neenan's website about the Alamosa Elementary School campus reads in part: "Neenan found that the building could be designed without air conditioning and still be comfortable."

"We got complaints from teachers the first year," Alamosa School Board secretary Neil Hammer told the Valley Courier in August. "The building plans were that the windows would block the heat, but it just hasn't happened."

The Neenan Co. has had a rocky past with schools it has built around Colorado, including several in the San Luis Valley. A 2012 exposé by the Denver Post found structural problems in every school Neenan had built at that time under the state's BEST grant, a fund designed to help rural districts replace aging school buildings.

Structural deficits once prompted Neenan to urge school employees to bar students from using a classroom in Sargent Junior-Senior High School on concerns that a section of roof could collapse under heavy snow loads. A school built by the company in Monte Vista required foundation upgrades. Construction of the Alamosa Elementary schools was delayed due to problems with two support columns.

Jackson said repair work on the system is underway.

"As of right now, by next summer, those programs will be in place so we can watch the system operate as it was intended four and a half years ago," said Jackson.

Neenan's response may not be enough, said Alamosa School Board President Erica Romero.

"How are they going to compensate us for the four and a half years it wasn't working?" said Romero. "Our kids have been roasting. Our teachers have been roasting. We've said it's not working properly. When we trust them to come in and build a school, and to build it to the standards that we paid for, especially when our kids and our teachers are suffering in those rooms, I have a hard time forgetting about it and moving on."