TEACHER VIEWPOINT:  Politics to blame for public schools not being air-conditioned


Politics to blame for public schools not being air-conditioned

By Alan Isbell

POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Oct 13, 2015

The phrase, “It’s for the kids,” is heard ad nauseam when it comes to justifying the policies of the education bureaucracy here, yet it has taken a public outcry to spur the Hawaii Department of Education to state its “concern” about over-heated classrooms.

According to documents on DOE’s website, because of “extreme heat this summer,” the DOE is “working with the Legislature to fast-track air-conditioning projects and other heat-relief initiatives via its Heat Abatement Program, which falls under the state’s capital improvements budget.”

Although temperatures recorded for many school days this year have broken heat records, it is not like this is a new problem. Teachers at schools in the hotter districts have been registering their complaints about over-heated classroom conditions for decades, apparently to deaf ears. On Maui, teachers and their students have languished in Kahului, Kihei and Lahaina classrooms despite complaints.

The stock DOE response has been “we can’t afford air conditioning.”

In fact, the DOE was unconcerned. Most principals will tell you that there has been no interest in heat abatement shown by the department prior to when this school year began.

After Campbell High School teachers in the hot Leeward District on Oahu began publicly demonstrating against the perceived inaction of the DOE to do anything about classroom temperatures closing in on the high 90s and above, the official hand-wringing began with the claim that adequately outfitting and retrofitting the state’s public schools with air conditioning would require an expenditure of $1.7 billion.

Then parents entered into the public fray recently and the DOE actually paid attention. Finally taking things outside the box, temporary portable air-conditioning units have been installed at 16 schools, including a few classrooms on the neighbor islands. Meanwhile, fans and some air-conditioning units have been donated by concerned citizens and businesses.

Nevertheless, many schools will require major electrical upgrades to handle the added capacity of traditional air-conditioning. An inventory of electrical systems is underway to determine which classrooms could be cooled with alternative power sources, such as photovoltaic panels.

While nobody is saying a permanent fix will come cheaply, budgeting for it should be made a top priority. Science tells us things are only going to get hotter. But funding for school capital improvements has not been deemed high priority for decades now, if the condition of many of the school buildings is any indication. With the exception of a few new schools, most campuses have suffered from neglect. So, if teacher salaries are also among the lowest in the nation, what exactly has been priority?

The short answer is politics. The Common Core standards and the high-stakes testing that came with it have cost the state a bundle. Was it worth it?

Between the new textbooks, training, administrative personnel, consultants and so on, one has to wonder what could have been done with the money involved. However, the DOE leadership, prodded heavily by federal Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, chose this direction to improve public education in Hawaii.

The irony is that learning and teaching are heavily affected by heat. Even if one buys into Common Core and standardized testing as a panacea for all that ails the schools, it is doomed to fail in classrooms that are too hot for serious mental activity.

The DOE knows about the effect of heat on productivity. Queen Liliuokalani Elementary School on Oahu was closed four years ago, and the DOE has spent millions renovating it into office space, which included an upgrade to the air conditioning system.

The bureaucrats want to be near the Capitol, where politics happen.

It must be for the kids.