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Newton

Newton looks at air-conditioning elementary school

The most controversial issue in designing Newton’s new Angier Elementary School comes down to this simple question: To cool or not to cool?

Newton school officials and aldermen are wrestling with whether installing air conditioning at an elementary school for the first time marks a luxury for the city or a nod to the necessities of modern education. The issue has raised touchy questions about need, equity, a changing culture, and long-term costs.

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For Angier parents, the decision is an easy one, as they think of their children wilting in stuffy rooms in the current, nearly 95-year-old building.

“It would be short-sighted for us not to do it,” said Emily Prenner, whose child attends Angier. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with baking the cost of it into the school, just like we bake in technology.”

Still, when the possibility of air conditioning first came up a few weeks ago, it hit some of the city’s aldermen like a blast of arctic air and so startled them that they immediately asked for more information about costs and options.

“We’re frugal,” said Alderwoman Susan Albright, adding that the request seemed to run counter to the hardy New England spirit that coolly weathers both snowstorms and heat waves.

“I was shocked in the beginning,” Albright said. “But I think it’s the right decision.”

‘I know that I’m going to be hearing from parents, “Why is this school air-conditioned and mine isn’t?” I can hear my phone ringing.’

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At a meeting earlier this week with the School Committee and Angier’s architects, most Newton aldermen indicated that they had warmed up to the idea of fully air conditioning the new school. The Angier Building Committee will vote next Wednesday on the building’s 50 percent design plans, which will include a recommendation for an entirely air conditioned facility.

If Newton officials decide to cool all three floors of the new Angier, scheduled to open in 2016, Newton would be joining neighboring districts in installing air conditioning in new schools.

The Concord school district has put air conditioning in all three elementary schools rebuilt since 2004. And Lexington is installing air conditioning in its new Estabrook Elementary School, currently under construction.

The decision whether to install air conditioning is up to each community, said Matt Donovan, a spokesman for the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which helps pay for the construction of many new schools, including Angier.

The authority doesn’t keep track of which new school projects include air conditioning, Donovan said.

The cost of air-conditioning the entire Angier building is included as part of the estimated construction costs, Newton officials said.

Because it’s a new facility, adding an air-conditioning system for the entire building, versus just the first floor and common areas such as the library, is marginal, according to the city’s architects.

Air conditioning all three floors of Angier would add $400,000 to the project’s budget. However, the annual utility and maintenance costs would be an additional $19,000.

But district officials said air conditioning the entire building is the right approach. Students are in school late into June, when the mercury has already risen to uncomfortable levels, district officials said.

The schools are also used in July and August for summer programs and teacher training. Increasingly, the district is also required to provide cool rooms for some children with special needs, said the system’s chief administrative officer, Sandra Guryan.

Many aldermen said they were less concerned about the initial costs of cooling Angier than with setting a precedent for future school renovation projects in the city.

It will be difficult to reject requests from parents and teachers who want air conditioning included in their schools, said Alderwoman Cheryl Lappin.

“It’s a big policy decision,” Lappin said. “We need to understand the capital costs.”

Currently, only the district’s two high schools and F.A. Day Middle School are fully air conditioned. Three of the other middle schools are partially air conditioned.

Except for the modular classrooms and a few window units for classrooms with special needs children, all of Newton’s elementary schools do without air conditioning. The newest elementary building, Burr Elementary School, was constructed in 1967, and predates the popularity of air conditioning.

Some aldermen said while they support air-conditioning Angier, the decision will likely put them in the hot seat soon.

“I know that I’m going to be hearing from parents, ‘Why is this school air-conditioned and mine isn’t?’ ” Alderman Anthony Salvucci said. “I can hear my phone ringing.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@ globe.com.
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