Just one-fifth of the classrooms Gov. David Ige pledged to air condition by the start of 2017 have been completed.

Roughly 1,000 classrooms are out to bid and 209 units have been installed.

In an email, Department of Education Assistant Superintendent Dann Carlson said only 54 of the 209 classrooms that have received air conditioning used the Legislature’s appropriation of $100 million. Other classrooms relied on a separate DOE program that works with schools that want to independently install air conditioning.

Those 54 classrooms cost $2.7 million.

Aliamanu Elementary School. 17 feb 2017
A contract has been awarded to install air conditioning in five classrooms at Aliamanu Elementary School. The low bid was $404,100. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Other classrooms around the state have received other cooling treatments. More than 400 portable classrooms have been covered with material to reflect heat, and ceiling fans have been installed in more than 100, according to the DOE site.

In Ige’s 2016 State of the State address, he announced his plan to air condition 1,000 classrooms by the end of the year. After a bill to appropriate $100 million became law in May, the DOE scrambled to meet the governor’s deadline.

Progress was derailed over the summer when the DOE received unexpectedly high bids, due in part to a lack of qualified workers. Estimates for the purchase and installation of air conditioning units were off by as much as $115,000 per unit, Carlson wrote in a July newsletter, but the DOE has since worked with contractors to lower prices.

Still, Ige is calling for another $61.7 million — on top of the $100 million appropriated by the Legislature last year — to complete his goal of installing 1,000 energy-efficient air conditioning units.

Over the past few months, 167 units have been installed in classrooms, and the Department of Education plans to have installed air conditioners in 1,000 classrooms by July.

“Last year I pledged to cool our schools. No one is more disappointed than I that implementation has lagged,” Ige said last month in his State of the State address. “But we haven’t lowered our sights.”

The pace of installation is picking up, but not everyone feels the bids are at a reasonable level — even after DOE’s negotiations with contractors.

Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee says the bids are still far too high. Before the $100 million initiative was announced, Rosenlee said schools had installed air conditioners on their own for less money than bidders are currently demanding.

Rosenlee cited Kaunakakai and Kilohana elementary schools, which installed solar-powered air conditioning thanks to donations from NextEra Energy. On average, the units cost about $18,000 each.

Referencing a DOE fiscal report that was discussed at a Board of Education meeting last week, he noted that bids for Nanakuli Elementary School estimated nearly $3 million would be needed for 21 air conditioning units — an average of $141,000 per classroom.

Rosenlee said that while the DOE maintains the extra cost comes from purchasing energy-efficient technology or structural problems like replacing a roof, “it just doesn’t pass the smell test.”

He called for a third-party evaluation of the costs.

At the onset of the project, Rosenlee said the state should have considered other options. Instead of putting multiple air conditioner installations out for bid at once, he said the state could’ve given money to individual schools or find a company from Hawaii or the mainland to take on the entire project instead.

“These companies saw $100 million and said ‘$100,000 per classroom, that’s what we’ll charge,’” Rosenlee said. “These companies are profiting off of the sweat from our children.”

By putting all classrooms that needed air conditioning out to bid at once, Carlson told Civil Beat that the DOE “flooded the market,” driving up demand and the cost. The DOE has since released the projects in two phases, he said.

Out of nearly 3,000 contractors contacted by DOE, only 60 applied — some of whom weren’t qualified, he said.

Rebidding the project also gave schools a chance to look at factors that could drive the cost of bids up, like asbestos in a roof or requiring crews to work at night or on the weekends, Carlson said.

“Looking back, we were trying to do it expeditiously (to meet Ige’s deadline),” Carlson said, noting the DOE only received the $100 million in May.

Waiting to install the units during periods when classrooms were vacant, like summer, is important, he said, and up to 1,300 more classrooms could receive upgrades by July.

Not all schools need air conditioning to bring classrooms to a comfortable temperature, he said, but about 7,000 classrooms statewide don’t have air conditioning. The DOE website cites ceiling fans, insulation and heat-reflective paint as other strategies used to cool schools.

Carlson is hopeful that as long as the department continues to receive funding, thousands of more classrooms, if not all, could receive cooling treatments.

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