California School Official Earns Widespread Backlash for Saying Latino Students Don’t Need Air Conditioning

Children with teacher at school.
A California school board member recently took heat for implying that a predominantly white school should receive air conditioning while a predominantly Latino school shouldn’t, because Latino children are “more accustomed” to the heat.

According to an April 17 Complex article, the Martinez Unified School District only has enough funding to install an air conditioning system in one of its two elementary schools. The majority of students at John Swett Elementary are white, and most students at La Juntas Elementary are Hispanic.

“I would say 95% of the students at La Juntas do not have air conditioning in their homes,” Denise Elsken said at a public school board meeting. “So whether that means those students are more acclimated and can handle a little more heat than the John Swett students — which I would say 95% of their residences have air conditioning in their homes.”

Statistically speaking, she couldn’t be more wrong. Two out of three homes in the U.S. are equipped with an air conditioning system, regardless of demographics.

Elsken went on to say that “cool roofs” and planting trees for shade would keep Las Juntas students cool during the warmer months, and that she supports putting the district’s $2 million toward installing air conditioning at the more affluent John Swett Elementary, according to CBS San Francisco.

Because of the racially charged nature of Elsken’s comment, however, many parents in Martinez spoke out against what they feel were insensitive, prejudiced words.

“I believe somebody who thinks that way has no business being on our school board,” parent Carrie Rochin told ABC7.

Some parents also interpreted Elsken’s words as having classist undertones, as many of Las Juntas’ students qualify for subsidized lunches.

“Since they are apparently accustomed to having less food at home as well, following Ms. Elsken’s logic, we might as well save some more money by not feeding them,” Guy Cooper said.

The widespread backlash, which received national attention, eventually led Elsken to apologize in a public statement — sort of.

“I’m sorry that was taken in a way that sounded discriminatory,” she said. “It wasn’t discriminatory, it was fairly factual.”

She went on to explain that she felt the budget money would be better spent on educational improvements and other services for Las Juntas’s students. Elsken does volunteer at Las Juntas and calls herself an advocate for the school; her two children attended the school, and she’s been a school board member for 16 years.

The Martinez school board ultimately voted to install air conditioning at John Swett.

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