I-TEAM: Old fire, security alarm systems reported at dozens of schools

DCPS hopes to replace systems with money from proposed half-cent sales tax

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – An engineering study shows dozens of Duval County school campuses have security and fire alarm systems beyond their useful life. 

The systems work and are repaired whenever there's an issue, according to the school district. But they are systems that Duval County Public Schools hope to replace with money from a proposed half-cent sales tax. 

In October 2018, Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. inspected each Duval County school. 

Reports obtained by the News4Jax I-TEAM show deficiencies that the engineering group found and the deficiencies that the group projected for each school in future years.

According to the reports, of the 157 DCPS campuses, not all of them schools, engineers reported "missing or inadequate security alarms systems" in at least 59 of the campuses. Jacobs Engineering Group also reported "missing or inadequate fire alarm systems" on at least 54 campuses.

"Current deficiencies are items in need of repair or replacement as a result of being broken, obsolete, or beyond useful life," according to one of the reports.

DCPS Executive Director of Design and Construction Paul Soares told the I-TEAM that the fire alarms are all operational, but were reported because they are beyond useful life and are over age. 

Jacksonville Beach Elementary is one of the schools listed as having an "inadequate" fire alarm and security system in the main building. The estimated cost of replacing the system is $383,352. 

Issues with HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) systems, roof leaks and electrical deficiencies were also noted throughout the 2018 report. 

The report for Fishweir Elementary School said the roof of the administration building and library are in poor condition, according to DCPS. The cost of the repair is an estimated $393,307.

Laura Heffernan and Tim Albro are among the parents suing the city of Jacksonville. The lawsuit comes after the Jacksonville City Council's failure to authorize a referendum to raise revenues to fix or replace Jacksonville's schools.

"Really, this is about doing the right thing for everybody in the county who uses these buildings," Heffernan said.

The School Board is proposing the half-cent sales tax to provide revenue to improve security and safety and to upgrade Duval County's aging schools. If approved by voters, the tax would run 15 years and raise an estimated $1.2 billion. DCPS has released a master plan of more than $1.9 billion in needed improvements and timeline of how that money would be spent.

The 6-year-old son of Heffernan and Albro attends Fishweir Elementary, which is in walking distance of their home.

"There are definitely structural problems in the building," Heffernan said. "I will say despite the mess ... the teachers are amazing and wonderful and cheery."

The Duval County School Board has also filed a lawsuit against the city following the City Council's vote to withdraw a bill that would have authorized the referendum.

School Board Chair Lori Hershey told the I-TEAM that issues with life and safety are being addressed immediately. 

"Keep in mind we have to address those issues now. We can't wait until 2021 or 2022 to get those funds coming in," Hershey said. "We have put millions of dollars into schools just to make those repairs."

In the reports, issues with life and safety -- such as reported fire and security alarm systems being missing or inadequate -- are categorized as priority one. According to the reports, priority one deficiencies or conditions may directly affect the schools' ability to stay open or deliver the educational curriculum. 

The School Board's lawsuit claims the backlog of deferred maintenance grows by $500,000 each month.

According to Hershey, without sales tax dollars, schools that would have been replaced may continue as is -- getting repairs. 

"So, when you are looking at merging schools together, they are going to be merged into an old facility instead of merged into a new facility," Hershey said.

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