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Bill would fund air ventilation overhauls in public schools

Most people would agree that teaching is one of the hardest professions, and that teachers often toil under less-than-ideal physical conditions.

A case in point: Janey Atchison, a sixth- and seventh-grade social studies teacher in St. Paul Public Schools who was teaching in a classroom two summers ago that reached 94 degrees.

She and her students tried to learn under those conditions for seven hours a day, for several days, but the high heat and humidity made that impossible.

“From small rural districts to large urban ones, our schools are extremely old. Our students are suffering,” she told the House Commerce Finance and Policy Committee Wednesday.

Relief could be coming with some cool cash.

HF2100 would appropriate money for schools to repair, upgrade, or replace their air ventilation systems to improve both heating and cooling.

“Air quality in our schools matters,” said Rep. Sydney Jordan (DFL-Mpls). She sponsors the proposal laid over for possible omnibus bill inclusion.

A yet-to-be-determined amount of money would be available to schools at a 50% match rate. Schools in communities with high rates of poverty would be prioritized grant recipients.

Upgrades or new installations would need to meet high energy-efficiency standards, Jordan said, plus improve air quality to help reduce absenteeism rates of students with asthma.

Ventilation projects would need to be performed by workers who have either graduated from, or are currently participating in, a registered union apprenticeship program.

“By requiring this work to be done by a skilled and trained workforce, we can ensure that the state resources and school resources are being spent in responsible ways by a workforce dedicated to quality control,” she said.

The pandemic brought out a lot of shady contractors, Jordan said, who made a lot of money installing expensive ventilation systems that promised a lot but did little to improve air quality.

However, the installation requirement didn’t sit well with some testifiers, who said allowing only apprenticeship-trained technicians to bid for these jobs would exclude otherwise qualified workers who trained outside of the union system.

Unions in Minnesota have a poor track record of admitting women and people of color, said Ken McCraley, owner of KMS Construction. His 38 Black employees hold the required technician certifications and deserve a chance to work on these projects. Requiring a union apprenticeship “immediately puts a hardship on minority companies,” he said.

Jordan is open to amending the bill to address those concerns.

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