Despite recent efforts to cool down Hawaii’s most sweltering classrooms, just one school has gotten the go-ahead to install campus-wide air conditioning since that campaign intensified nearly a year ago.

Hickam Elementary at the Air Force Base is joining 12 other public schools statewide that already have central AC, according to Department of Education data. An additional school — Kihei’s Lokelani Intermediate — is undergoing final construction to install AC, a project that started in 2008.

When those projects are completed, about 5 percent of the state’s regular public schools will have central cooling.

“There needs to be a greater urgency,” said Corey Rosenlee, a grassroots organizer and teacher at Campbell High School, where class sizes often reach 40 students and temperatures can rise to the mid-90s. “We’re baking our children.”

Campbell High students - "We Need AC"

Campbell High students rally for A.C. in September 2013.

Alia Wong/Civil Beat

Heat can hinder student learning; research suggests that the optimal classroom temperature is around 72 degrees. AC also helps mitigate other classroom nuisances as well, such as noise, odors and insects, Rosenlee said. 

But other than some piecemeal capital improvement allocations, the Legislature hasn’t budged on the classroom cooling front. 

Lawmakers on the budget committees declined to set aside the $25 million that both the DOE and Gov. Neil Abercrombie requested in their supplemental budget proposals to help pay for school AC. And a bill that would’ve required the DOE to conduct a survey of schools’ needs and develop a “cooling master strategy” died at the last minute this past session despite garnering strong support from lawmakers. 

Still, there are signs of progress. Earlier this year, the DOE announced a plan to outfit schools statewide with alternative energy technologies such as solar and wind, cutting costs by $24 million over five years and making comprehensive campus cooling more reasonable and ecologically friendly. Meanwhile, legislators over the years have set aside millions of dollars in capital improvement money for school AC projects, though the funding for many of those projects has yet to be released. 

The projects include plans for “heat abatement” and AC upgrades at Ewa Beach’s Campbell High and Ilima Intermediate, two of the nine schools on the DOE’s AC priority list. At the top of that list is Ewa Beach Elementary, which is still awaiting funding.

Hickam Elementary and Lokelani Intermediate were the most recent schools to get checked off on the priority list, which ranks schools largely based on their heat levels and need for relief. The money for those projects came from past allocations to the DOE.

“When we head back (to school), the classrooms are going to be pits.” — Corey Rosenlee, Campbell High School teacher

This year’s capital improvement funding for Campbell High and Ilima Intermediate — $2.3 million and $1 million, respectively — wouldn’t cover the total cost for campus-wide AC at those schools, which is estimated at $13 million and $8 million, according to DOE spokeswoman Dara Young. The allocated funding would only cover fans or partial AC, Young said. (It would cost $5 million to install AC at Ewa Beach Elementary.)

Campbell High became the poster child for the campaign to cool Hawaii’s sweltering classrooms last September, when nearly 500 of the school’s students rallied at the Capitol urging lawmakers to fund campus AC.  

“When we head back (to school), the classrooms are going to be pits,” Rosenlee said.

Rosenlee said he supports efforts to survey every school’s cooling needs because the state lacks detailed information on what resources schools actually have. For example, some schools have installed portable AC units in certain classrooms, he said. On the other hand, many schools are so old they don’t have the electrical infrastructure to power AC. 

Hawaii’s public school buildings are 65 years old, on average. 

Ray L’Heureux, the assistant superintendent in charge of school facilities, has stressed the importance of capitalizing on other means of cooling, such as solar lighting that doesn’t produce the heat typically generated by electric lights, and better roof insulation. The DOE is also working on a project to install fans in schools on Oahu’s Leeward Coast and on the southeast coast of the Big Island.

David Ige, who’s running for governor and until recently chaired the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said one solution could be as simple as pushing the school calendar back a few weeks. Schools start Aug. 1, in the middle of the summer. 

“We all know that students would learn better in a comfortable environment,” Ige said, pointing to improved building design and 21st-century technology as other possible solutions. “We are getting to the point where other options are becoming available.”

Ige was at the helm of the committee that at the last minute derailed the bill for a cooling master strategy in April, along with a slate of other key education measures

The state’s downgraded forecast, announced in March, ultimately forced Ige and other top lawmakers to kill the measures, he said. 

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