DOE: Lawmakers funded just one third of AC requests

DOE: Lawmakers funded just one third of AC requests

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Department of Education said Monday state lawmakers funded only about one third of its requests for air conditioning installations over the last four years, figures that the chairs of the Legislature's money committees dispute.

"Walk into the classrooms first thing in the morning and you're already dripping in sweat," said Kalaheo High School science teacher Micah Pregitzer, who measured his classroom temperature at 108 degrees a week ago at mid afternoon.

He blamed DOE officials and lawmakers, who, he notes, work in air conditioned offices, unlike most teachers in the state, where about 90 percent of the classrooms have no AC.

"When it comes to education, the money can't be found.  It's not a priority.  It needs to be made a priority because these children are our future.  The education of these kids is he future of this state," Pregitzer said.

The Department of Education said in the last four years, it asked lawmakers for $22 million in air conditioning projects, but the Legislature approved just $7 million worth.

"We're moving as quickly as we can with the resources that we're provided," said Amy Kunz, the DOE's chief financial officer.

Kunz said schools lucky enough to get any AC funds are often only able to make small improvements.

"The money may only be enough to do development or planning for the use of that money or we can maybe do a library or one building with the funds that we're provided," Kunz said.

But the chairs of the two legislative money committees offered different figures, saying in the last two years, they approved $20 million for air conditioning installation and it's up to DOE to prioritize.

"We give Department of Education a huge amount of lump sum, which we don't for other departments.  So we're a little bit puzzled about these different numbers.  But it's something that we will take a look at it again," said State Rep. Sylvia Luke, who chairs the State House finance committee.

Luke and State Sen. Jill Tokuda, who chairs the Senate ways and means committee, said they gave the department $4 million more than it asked for to pay for higher electricity costs because of newly-installed AC systems.

"We funded above and beyond what was even requested from their utilities budget," Tokuda said.

But that money is just a drop in a bucket, because the DOE estimates it  costs $5 million to install air conditioning at each elementary school, $10 million at a middle school and $15 million at a high school.

State Sen. Donna Kim, who was Senate president for the last two years, said some lawmakers don't trust the DOE to spend money effectively, because so few of their projects are on time and on budget.

"With all the monies that got wasted with a number of these construction projects, we could have found the money to do more," Kim said.

The DOE estimates it will cost $1.7 billion to convert all its classrooms to AC and because the majority of its schools are more than 50 years old, many of them need costly electrical upgrades and insulation work first before air conditioning can be installed.

"It all comes down to prioritizing and thoughtfully using the money that we're provided to get the most accomplished with what we're given."

Kunz said the DOE is concerned about rushing to convert aging schools to AC that have no insulation.

"Many schools have jalousie windows.  So the last thing we want to do is waste money and be air conditioning a classroom and be basically be air conditioning the playground as well," Kunz said. "It all comes down to prioritizing and thoughtfully using the money that we're provided to get the most accomplished with what we're given."

Asked about why lawmakers did not fund any of former Gov. Neil Abercrombie's $25 million request for new air conditioning in schools in early 2014, Kim said,""There's always the issue of where the money's going to come from.  With all of the projects that were being put in, you know, early education projects and so forth, it took a back burner."

"And if you're going to do one school, are you going to do a second school, a third school and all the schools put together?  How much can you really do?" Kim added.

The DOE said in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, it asked legislators for $9 million and received $5 million for both heat and noise abatement. That same year, lawmakers added $200,000 each for classroom cooling projects at Aiea, Kipapa and Lincoln elementary schools.

In the 2012-2013 supplemental budget, the DOE asked for $9 million, and received $2 million for AC projects.

The department said for the two-year 2014-2015 period, the DOE asked for $4 million in AC improvements, but received no money from the Legislature.

Lawmakers appropriated extra money through legislative "add ons" for a number of projects including:

$2.3 Million       Campbell HS heat abatement (being used for design and deployment of heat abatement methods including: roof insulation coating, night venting and temporary portable ACs)
$1 Million           Ilima Intermediate heat abatement (funds going to roof insulation coating, night venting, temporary portable ACs.)
$1.5 Million        Aiea Elementary
$180,000           August Ahrens
$450,000           Kanoelani Elementary campus wide AC (design only)
$100,000           Kaluluwela Elementary noise abatement planning
$325,000           Mililani Waena Elemenatary AC replacement
$280,000           Washington Middle School Library AC replacement
$340,000           Lunalilo Elementary electrical upgrade/ceiling fans and furniture
$540,000           Queen Kaahumanu Elementary includes additional partition to cafeteria and AC

The DOE said the appropriated funding is not always enough to cover the projects they are associated with or may not include many classrooms. For example, $200,000 for one school may only be enough for design for a library or building or two.

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