Schools need better design, methods to keep students cool
A Senate committee has approved $40 million for air conditioning in public schools.
A NEW calendar has public school classes in session during some of the hottest months of the year and students enduring temperatures that can distract them from their lessons.
So a Senate bill to provide $40 million toward the eventual air conditioning of all of Hawaii's public school buildings is well intended. However, with escalating electricity costs and concerns about energy security and environmental consequences, state officials and lawmakers should place an equal or greater emphasis on better building designs and use of renewable energy sources.
The bill advancing through the Senate would air-condition the 264 schools that now have no or partial air conditioning. Only 21 schools are fully air conditioned, two of them newer facilities, since the Department of Education generally has been given only enough funds to install air conditioning in a single older school every one to two years.
The $40 million could pay for retrofitting about eight schools, depending on the size of the campuses, during the next two years, according to department calculations. That's not much of a gain when the goal is to complete the air-conditioning project in a decade.
In fact, Schools Superintendent Pat Hamamoto told lawmakers that the timeline was unrealistic and that costs could amount to $1 billion. The measure was amended with the dollar amount reduced, but still requires the department to come up with a 10-year plan.
Such a plan presumes that air conditioning is necessary in all school facilities when there might be other ways to keep rooms, children and teachers cool, and though the bill also directs energy conservation, that effort is just as important.
School officials have acknowledged the need for conservation and smart building design. An example is Waipahu Intermediate's new cafeteria, which has high ceilings that allow rising hot air to escape while windows at lower levels capture cool breezes and let in natural light.
Meanwhile, new designs for notoriously not-portable classrooms have been drawn up and tested and are in review.
Designs for new schools and renovated spaces also have been adopted with guidelines for natural light, insulation and ventilation techniques to use less electricity.
Schools also should take steps toward renewable energy, such as installing solar panels to produce electricity on site. While costs might be high initially, the savings from skyrocketing electricity bills would balance the expense. The renewable resource would cut environmental expenses, too.