Construction bids for the state’s “cool schools” initiative have started to trend lower since the Department of Education announced last month that an initial round of proposals came in significantly over budget.
The department says it rejected those initial high bids — including one that was nearly 10 times the $40,000-per-classroom estimate the DOE was using — while also restricting new bids from going out. DOE officials have attributed the high bids to increased labor costs due to the state’s construction boom and an initially limited number of companies that were pre-qualified to bid on the work.
“Some of the bids that we have opened, because there had been a continuation of bids coming in in the month of July, we’ve definitely started to see a drastic reduction, so we’re very hopeful that we’ll be able to get to an acceptable area,” Dann Carlson, assistant superintendent for school facilities and support services, recently told the Board of Education’s Finance and Infrastructure Committee.
For example, bids for a heat abatement project at Kamaile Academy, a public charter school in Waianae that ranks No. 4 on the state’s priority list of the 33 hottest campuses, have come in much closer to the department’s per-classroom estimate.
Using early industry estimates, DOE officials had been budgeting $40,000 as an “estimated median per classroom” cost to cover equipment and installation of air conditioners and other heat abatement measures as part of the state’s ambitious plan to cool 1,000 public school classrooms this year. The DOE had estimated it could complete the project for roughly $45 million, with most schools receiving solar-powered air conditioners. (The legislation providing $100 million for the initiative requires spending the funds on “equipment and installation costs for air conditioning, other heat abatement measures, energy efficient lighting and other energy efficiency measures” to help offset energy use.)
But procurement documents for the initial round of bids for six schools showed proposals ranged from $80,404 per classroom to cool six portable classrooms on Maui to $360,770 to cool one portable classroom in Leeward Oahu.
By comparison, the more recent bids received for Kamaile Academy break down to $49,527 per classroom and $63,422 per classroom. Greenpath Technologies Inc. bid $445,741 for the work — which calls for air conditioning along with electrical and photovoltaic work for nine portable classrooms — while CC Engineering & Construction Inc. bid $570,800.
A DOE spokeswoman said in an email that the department is “currently in the process of discussing with the potential awardee the details of the project in hopes of bringing the cost down.”
Meanwhile, Carlson said the department plans to host a so-called pre-bid meeting with pre-qualified contractors Thursday to answer questions about the cooling projects. A date was selected when no prior solicitations for bids will be pending.
“We restricted placing bids out there because we needed a window of time when there are no bids opened so that it didn’t look like there was any unfair advantage,” Carlson said. “We’ll brief them; we’ll explain everything we’re looking for. We’ll have our consultants there to answer any kinds of questions they might have.”
The plan to cool 1,000 classrooms — pledged by Gov. David Ige in his State of the State speech and subsequently funded by the Legislature — initially was envisioned to be completed by December, and officials had hoped some of the work could begin over the summer while most classrooms were empty. But with the work being rebid and the new school year set to begin Monday, the project will likely be delayed well into next year.
Pressed by some BOE members for a timeline, Carlson said new bids would likely go out in the beginning of August, with projects being awarded toward the end of that month and initial work possibly starting in September.
He added that the department is working to make the project bid packages more attractive.
For example, a previous solicitation called for solar-powered air conditioning for one portable classroom at Ewa Beach Elementary, which tops the priority list of schools in need of cooling. That project attracted the highest per-classroom bid at $360,770. Carlson said 30 more classrooms that were scheduled to eventually receive air conditioning at Ewa Beach Elementary will be added to the portable project to create a more attractive bid package.
“We’re combining those so that it’s not a one-off,” Carlson said. “A contractor can mobilize, get out there, do all the projects at once and, hopefully, through economy of scale, drive prices down.”
BOE chairman Lance Mizumoto asked Carlson what the department is doing to ensure schools — especially those on the cooling priority list — are prepared for the heat when classes begin.
“Now we get to the issue of contingency plans, because school is starting pretty soon,” Mizumoto said. “What kind of contingencies do you have in mind, knowing that the plans are going to be delayed, knowing that school is starting (soon)? How do we address the students’ needs at this point?”
Carlson said the DOE has sent guidelines to school principals with suggestions to help keep students and faculty comfortable on hot days, such as taking advantage of air-conditioned libraries on campuses.
“We’re not at the point where we’re doing heat days or early releases,” he said. “It’s more of an educational campaign.”
He added that heat abatement projects besides air conditioning have been completed over the past year and that schools still have access to portable air conditioners that were rolled out as a temporary emergency fix last fall as temperatures climbed to record highs.
The goal under the DOE’s heat abatement program is for classroom temperatures to be at 76 degrees. Mechanical cooling is planned for classrooms in which heat abatement efforts — such as ceiling fans, solar-powered vents to draw out hot air and heat-reflective roof systems — don’t sufficiently bring down the temperature.
Donalyn Dela Cruz, DOE spokeswoman, said heat abatement projects, which are separate from the 1,000-classrooms initiative, are ongoing. Reflective roof coatings have been applied to more than 400 portable classrooms, 139 classrooms have received new ceiling fans and 109 classrooms are equipped with portable air conditioners, she said.
Carlson added that the department has been tracking daily temperatures, and “this year, at least so far to about this week, the temperatures were significantly cooler than they were last year.”