Plan for AC in Hawaii Schools Hits a Snag

Jul 25, 2016

Credit Molly Solomon

Next Monday, Hawai‘i public school students will return to classrooms across the state. And chances are, many of those school rooms will be hot. HPR’s Molly Solomon reports on how plans to cool classrooms remain uncertain. 

Earlier this year, it seemed like cooler days were ahead for Hawai‘i’s public schoolchildren. The legislature and the Governor had agreed to spend $100 million to cool one thousand Hawai‘i classrooms by the end of the year.

But now it looks like those plans are on hold. After an initial bidding process included proposals far above the $40,000 per classroom estimate the Department of Education had expected.

“It came in anywhere from $80,000 to $300,000 per room. Basically anyone can tell you how ridiculous that is,” said Corey Rosenlee, the union president of the Hawai‘i State Teacher’s Association.

“At this point, there’s no way we’re going to get the air conditioners into the classrooms in time,” said Rosenlee. “That’s a travesty for our students and we have to think about how we’re going to mitigate that.”

Rosenlee suggests that schools consider heat days -- similar to snow days -- where classes are canceled during extremely hot weather. It’s a policy that’s been adopted in some states, like Colorado and California.

And there are other approaches.

“It’s a lot more than just air conditioning in schools. It’s really heat abatement projects,” said John White, the executive director of Pacific Resource Partnership, a labor management group that represents more than 200 contractors.

He says the bids likely came in high because the projects are complex. They can involve anything from reroofing and installing new windows to electrical upgrades on the whole school.

“There’s a lot of construction that takes place for heat abatement. It’s not a one size fits all sort of deal,” White said. “Applying that $40,000 per classroom number seems to be not the right way to be looking at it, because there are some schools that are going to require a lot more work than other schools.”

“Heat is a concern. It’s been a concern last year, it’s been a concern the year before,” said Donalyn Dela Cruz, the state Department of Education’s communications director. She says while air conditioning remains behind schedule, the department has been moving on their heat abatement plan. More than 400 portable buildings have received cool roofs, 109 classrooms have portable AC units, and nearly 140 have new ceiling fans.

“There’s a lot of progress that has been made but we still have a lot of work to do,” Dela Cruz said. “Work that we had hoped would move at a faster pace.”

The Department of Education plans to issue heat-related guidelines for every classroom before the school year begins. Talks with contactors will resume Thursday with a second round of bids expected in the coming weeks.