Plans to cool off classrooms throughout Hawaii have been delayed, an assistant superintendent told state Board of Education members Tuesday.

The department’s initiative to add air conditioning to 1,000 classrooms has been slowed by high costs resulting from increased construction demand and a shortage of skilled labor, said Dann Carlson, assistant superintendent for the Office of School Facilities and Support Services.

“There’s just a huge drain on the industry right now,” Carlson said. “Hence our decision to start negotiating with some of these contractors. We’re taking a pause.”

Campbell High students rally for air conditioning in September 2013.
Students like these at Campbell High School in 2013 have long called for cooler classrooms. Alia Wong/Civil Beat

The department received more than $100 million from the Legislature to add air conditioning to 1,000 classrooms throughout the state. Hawaii Gov. David Ige said he was working with the DOE and private companies to accomplish that goal before the end of the year at his state of the state address in January.

Now that deadline will be pushed back, but the department isn’t sure by how much. The revised schedule includes reopening bidding in July. The department currently has about 50 pre-qualified contractors, Carlson said.

“The good thing is, we’ve got some really large names on there,” he told board members. “Some construction companies that are certainly capable of the workload that we’re looking at.”

A combination of high costs and fewer bids than anticipated caused the department to push back the deadline, Carlson explained in an opinion piece in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. He cited an example of a $135,000 bid for photovoltaic-powered air conditioning. The original estimated cost was about $20,000.

“If we go with the bids we received so far, we will cool fewer classrooms at a price that is unacceptable,” he wrote.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association supported the DOE’s decision and put the blame on contractors who provided much lower bids earlier, the union wrote in testimony to the school board.

“We must not hastily adopt solutions that will deny thousands of children a constructive learning environment and jeopardize their well-being,” wrote Corey Rosenlee, president of HSTA. “We must, instead, urge private contractors turn their expertise into reasonable bids to make our schools as cool as the dreams to which our children aspire.”

However, the union did offer an alternative at the school board meeting. Wilbert Holck, executive director of HSTA, suggested the schools reach out to their respective community councils to try to get more local contractors bidding.

“In every school’s community, there are electricians, there are solar people and others who may be willing to install these air conditioners for a cheaper rate or free,” Holck said. “We see this happening all the time when a community gets involved with a school.”

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