Hawaii Department of Education officials say the effort to cool overheated classrooms is being treated as a crisis, likening the matter to its response to the lava flow threat on the Big Island last year.
“We’re handling this like an emergency, very similar to what we did, for example, when lava was approaching our school on the island of Hawaii — we have biweekly calls … to discuss what we’ve done and ways ahead, and to make sure it’s forefront in our minds,” Assistant Superintendent Dann Carlson told the Board of Education on Tuesday.
To that end the department is seeking the governor’s approval to divert approximately $20 million in its capital improvements budget for so-called heat abatement measures, which can include installing air conditioners and temporary portable AC units, heat-reflective roof systems and solar-powered vents to draw out hot air. The funds are part of a $134 million lump-sum appropriation the Legislature provided for repair and maintenance projects at schools this year.
“The reality is we have a (repair and maintenance) backlog, so re-prioritizing this money could mean a delay in other projects,” DOE spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz said. “But this is what we would consider an emergency situation, and we need the funds to do it,” she said, referring to efforts to cool down classrooms.
Jodi Leong, spokeswoman for Gov. David Ige, said the request is under review by the state Department of Budget and Finance, which will make a recommendation to the governor.
In the meantime the DOE is continuing to purchase and install portable air conditioning units in the state’s hottest classrooms as an interim solution. Carlson said that by the end of the week, the department expects to receive a shipment of 123 portable air conditioners, bringing to 250 the number of units purchased or installed since the start of the school year.
Most of the initial round of units have been installed in the Campbell complex area in West Oahu, which includes several of the schools on the DOE’s priority list for air conditioning.
Carlson said the department is developing a priority list for the portable air conditioners by working with complex-area superintendents to identify the hottest schools around the state, and working with principals at those schools to identify their 10 hottest classrooms. He’s been sending electrical engineers out to those classrooms to ensure the electrical capacity is adequate.
“That way we have a good detailed list of exactly where we’re going to install these portable AC units as they arrive on island,” he said.
BOE Vice Chairman Brian De Lima commended the department for its emergency response but noted that it took record-high temperatures and public outcry to accelerate the department’s heat abatement efforts.
Fewer than 10 percent of public schools — 21 out of 256 schools statewide — have campuswide central air conditioning. The DOE has estimated that it would cost $1.7 billion to install central air in all schools.