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Lack of air conditioning at DeKalb's Lincoln Elementary leads to more student absences

DeKALB – On Tuesday, 43 students – about one-sixth of the student population – were absent from Lincoln Elementary School because of extreme heat, according to Principal Jennifer Tallitsch.

As the only school in DeKalb School District 428 without air conditioning, some of Lincoln's classroom temperatures climbed as high as 105 degrees. The heat even damaged one of the school's Smart Boards.

School was canceled at Lincoln altogether Thursday and Friday, marking the second year in a row in which heat forced the school to close. Temperatures hit 92 degrees those two days, about 20 degrees warmer than the historical average, according to the National Weather Service.

"It's a hard decision to have to make to cancel class but safety is a priority," Tallitsch said.

On Monday and Tuesday, parents were given the option to keep their children home from school because of the weather. Tallitsch said some students had come down with headaches and were vomiting, and although it is unclear whether these cases are coming from an illness going around or from the weather, the heat certainly isn't helping students' health.

D-428 Superintendent Jamie Craven said this issue, as well as where the district stands financially to fix it after the passage of the fiscal 2018 budget, will be discussed during an upcoming school board meeting.

“With possible available funds in the district, it has to be a priority,” Craven said. “Parents certainly have the right [to pull their students], so hopefully we’ll be out of the woods this fall, with the weather breaking.”

The reprieve could come as soon as Wednesday, when a high of 72 is expected, according to NWS, although highs could push back into the mid-80s by the middle of next week. It hasn't rained, more than a brief sprinkle, in about a month, turning DeKalb County's landscapes brown. The NWS reports only seven-hundredths of an inch of rain in September.

The only parts of Lincoln with air conditioning units are the main office, nurse's office, staff lounge and the mobile trailer, which contains a music room and library.

Class cancellations because of hot weather also occurred in 2013 at Lincoln Elementary, Malta Elementary, Littlejohn Elementary, Jefferson Elementary and Founders Elementary schools, when all the schools had either partial or no air conditioning.

DeKalb Mechanical has proposed a $1.1 million project to replace the Lincoln’s boiler system and piping, along with a secondary proposal to remove asbestos from the boiler, both of which are required before any plans to install air conditioning. Earlier this year, the board voted to postpone the work.

"It's not that nobody wants it," Tallitsch said. "It just comes down to the almighty buck."

D-428 began fiscal year 2018 in fair shape, despite approving a budget with a $900,000 operating fund deficit. With the passage of legislation in August that overhauled the state's outdated funding formula, the district will receive an additional $844,000 from the state compared with last school year.

One of the most sweltering classrooms of the roughly 60-year-old Lincoln building was Billy Imm's third-grade room but the 40-year veteran of Lincoln Elementary said he was proud of his students for staying focused.

"You guys are troupers," Imm said to his students as he was teaching them biology.

The heat did not dampen the spirits of Mya Lexa's fourth-grade class as they worked in teams to solve an escape box, a special puzzle solved using knowledge of the math lessons taught in class.

All staff members had to work Thursday and Friday and tried to confine themselves to the air conditioned sections. Tallitsch said some space was also made available at the D-428 Education Center for staff, but she did not think anyone took advantage of it.

Tallitsch commended her staff for persevering through the heat to provide the best education possible for students.

“They are here, and they are present for the kids and making the best situation that they can,” Tallitsch said. “They come together as a family, and I’m very blessed to have the staff that I have.”

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