TAXWatch: Cooling the Schools – The Reality

It wasn’t long ago that, in response to numerous complaints of students sweltering in their classrooms, Governor Ige proclaimed that he would commit $100 million to cool 1,000 classrooms.  At the end of the 2016 legislative session, he signed Act 47 of 2016 appropriating the funds to the Department of Education (DOE), and in 2018 he trumpeted this accomplishment during his re-election campaign.

As KHON2 reported in November, the $100 million covered only about one-tenth of public school classrooms in Hawaii.  Those classrooms received solar powered systems costing an average of $40,000 per classroom.  Fast forward a little, and we see that some schools that received the units found that they either have started breaking down or will only work for a short time every day.  

KITV, in a more recent newscast this year, reported that one school, Niu Valley Middle School in east Honolulu, reported more than 300 heat-related visits to the school nurse’s office over the course of four months (August through November).  That’s between 3 and 4 kids per school day needing medical attention. Ouch.

One teacher, writing about his experience on the “Cool Our Keiki” Facebook group, said that his school administration tried to fix the situation.  “The DOE brought in a team of state workers to evaluat[e], and their recommendation? Wait for a sunny day so the batteries can charge.”  In the six weeks that followed, he reports, there were plenty of sunny days but the air conditioners in his classroom and his neighbor’s classroom still don’t work.

Not only that, air conditioning upgrades may make matters worse at times.  When some companies install the upgrades, they fix the windows so they can’t be opened, as KHON2 reported.  If the unit fails for whatever reason, using the trade winds is no longer an option.

Why solar powered air conditioning?  Because the DOE is under a mandate to have net zero electrical consumption to meet Hawaii green energy goals.

Is there a way out of this mess?  The DOE thinks so, as it has rolled out a “School Directed A/C” program that allows basic, affordable window units if the DOE staff verities that the school’s electrical system can handle the extra load.  It turns out that the DOE recently completed a large project to replace 700,000 light bulbs at Oahu schools with more efficient LED bulbs, reducing electric usage and creating the capacity to install air conditioning while still being “net zero.”

In a press release, DOE’s assistant superintendent for facilities and operations describes the window units:  “These are less complex units from installation to maintenance, where we’re not having to tear down walls or install solar panels or battery systems. It will be easier for our schools to maintain these units rather than having to contract out for maintenance service,” she said.

“Things can be done much, much cheaper,” KHON2 quotes HSTA President Corey Rosenlee as saying. “You can probably do a classroom for $2,000 where before it cost $100,000. If a wall unit falls apart after 10 years, then you can replace it. It’s easy to look back now and say we should have done this 5 years ago.”

Okay, so where does that leave us?  We spent a massive amount of money on our schools a few years ago and have gotten questionable results.  We have since identified a much cheaper and more efficient path toward addressing the health and safety issue that still plagues our keiki.  Educators, are there lessons to be learned from all of this? If so, tell your administrators! Let’s learn from this debacle and use our public money more efficiently next time.

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Tom Yamachika is the President of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, a private, nonprofit educational organization dedicated to informing the taxpaying public about the finances of our state and local governments in Hawaii. Tom is also a tax attorney in solo practice and has been since early 2013. Prior to 2013, he was with the accounting firm Accuity LLP, which was formed in 2006 from the Honolulu office of Coopers & Lybrand (which later became PricewaterhouseCoopers). Before that, he served as an Administrative Rules Specialist in the State of Hawaii Department of Taxation from 1994 to 1996, where he drafted rules, interpretive releases, and legislation on several different state taxes. Prior to that, he practiced litigation and tax law with Cades Schutte Fleming & Wright in Honolulu.