The number of people who call 311 each year to complain about lacking heat in city schools is going up, NBC 4 New York's I-Team has found, and the chilly classroom conditions could be in violation of state constitution.
Over the last five years, 311 heat complaints at city public schools have risen 46 percent, from 129 complaints in 2010 to 189 complaints in 2014, according to data obtained by the I-Team.
One of the most complained about schools is the International Leadership Charter High School in the Bronx, where the heat has been malfunctioning all winter. So far this school year, students, parents, or school staff have complained about cold classrooms at least 14 times to 311 operators.
One ninth-grade student said school officials blamed the heat problems on the old building. Another freshman, Ruby Henriquez, said the cold classrooms make it difficult to study.
"All you're thinking about is getting warm and you want the heat to be on so you can concentrate more in class," Henriquez said.
The charter school's Board of Trustees handed the I-Team a written statement confirming the recurrent heat problems. "Rooms affected by inadequate heat when temps are below freezing are in the 9th and 10th grade wing of the building," the statement reads.
The statement goes on to blame cold classrooms on a "Landlord / Tenant issue."
School administrators say only four classrooms had inadequate heat and they immediately brought in space heaters and applied plastic to "winterize" classroom windows.
But freshman Andrea Ndoci said despite those efforts, the temperatures have often gone below 68 degrees -- the legal threshold for landlords -- this winter.
"Everyone in the room is cold and everyone is complaining about it but no one is doing anything. They leave thermometers in the room to check the heat," Ndoci said.
Micheal Rebell, a professor of education law at Teachers College, said failure to provide adequate heat is considered a violation of students’ rights under the Constitution of the State of New York.
"It's not an excuse that some landlord isn't providing heat or saving money or not doing repairs. These children have a constitutional right to have a decent facility,” Rebell said.
In 2006, Rebell successfully argued before the New York Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, that the state’s school finance system underfunded the New York City Department of Education and deprived city students of their constitutional rights. In its final opinion, the court affirmed "students are entitled to minimally adequate physical facilities and classrooms which provide enough light, space, heat, and air to permit children to learn."
Harry Hartfield, a DOE spokesman, said cold classrooms are considered immediate priorities.
“We treat heating issues in our buildings extremely seriously; any building without heat is considered an emergency and is addressed that same day,” Hartfield said.
Hartfield also cautioned drawing conclusions from the increasing number of 311 heat complaints over the last five years.
“Last year the city saw a record-breaking number of calls to 311, so the increase does not necessarily reflect an increase in heating issues, but rather that more New Yorkers are taking advantage of 311.”
Education psychologists say chilly classrooms may have a biggest impact on teachers than students.
Elise Cappella, associate professor of applied psychology at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education, said environmental problems in the classroom can be difficult to overcome because they not only take students’ attention away from lesson plans, but they also distract the teachers.
“If teachers are stressed and uncomfortable, if teachers are not able to prepare adequately, if teachers are not able to be as responsive to kids as they usually are, then that's potentially problematic,” Cappella said.
As another spell of bitter cold moves toward the East Coast, Dr. Elaine Ruiz Lopez, founder and CEO of the International Leadership Charter High School, says administrators will pay for a more permanent fix for the school’s heating system, even though they believe it is the responsibility of the building landlord, Bob Johnson.
“Because we’re not getting anywhere with Mr. Bob Johnson. We have requested repairs at our expense to whatever he is claiming is broken,” Lopez said. “We’re absorbing the repair costs to the HVAC system at our own expense.”
Lopez added that the International Leadership Charter High School will be moving into a new school building next year, so heat should not be a problem then.
Johnson told the I-Team it is explicitly laid out in the school’s lease that the school is responsible for “all heating air conditioning and ventilation.”
“The contract is very specific,” Johnson said. “I can’t believe the CEO told every one of those teachers that it was the landlord’s responsibility when they control three HVAC units.”
Whomever is responsible for the cold classrooms, Rebell said failure to provide heat is more than a point of constitutional law.
“I think it's an ethical and moral point, he said. "We shouldn't have school buildings with inadequate heat."
Students, parents or school staffers can report a cold classroom by calling 311 or contacting the Public Advocate's Constituent Help Hotline at 212-669-7250 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.