Dann Carlson at times wonders to himself how as a retired Air Force fighter pilot he wound up overseeing everything from building schools to pricing student lunches for the state Department of Education (DOE). But the transition seems to have been a natural one.
"There are tons of success stories out there. Unfortunately we are highlighted for the ones that aren't going so well."
Carlson, 48, took on several staff positions before retiring from the Air Force. From 2011 to 2013 he was deputy Joint Base commander at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam, leading more than 900 Air Force personnel in six squadrons: civil engineering, security forces, contracting, communications, logistics and force support.
So it's no wonder that as DOE assistant superintendent for the Office of School Facilities and Support Services, he's not overwhelmed by having to lead 400 employees — from clerks to carpenters, architects to engineers — in six branches. Those branches include transportation, food services, auxiliary services, safety and security, facilities maintenance and facilities development.
He retired from the Air Force in December 2014 and started his DOE job in the same month. In his 13 months he has had to respond to the uproar over sweltering classrooms, was involved in the first design-build project at Ho'okele Elementary in Kapolei and helped shepherd energy-efficiency projects, among other tasks.
"All my peers think I'm crazy" to take on this job, said Carlson, who flew F-16s and was part of the Thunderbirds. But "the opportunity to go back to public service in this capacity again was just an opportunity I didn't want to pass up."
Carlson earned a bachelor of science in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Air Force Academy, a master of business administration degree from Trident University and a master's degree in strategic studies from the U.S. Air Force Air War College at The Air University in Alabama.
Carlson spent some of his youth in Kaneohe and attended Stevenson Middle School. Three of his four children attended public schools here, and his wife, Sherilyn, is a civilian family readiness officer at the Marine Corps Base Hawaii.
A relaxing retirement in paradise has somehow eluded Carlson.
"I have three kids in college right now," Carlson said. "I need a job."
Question: You deal with a wide variety of areas, but let's talk about the facilities development branch since it generates a lot of interest.
Answer: Everything from new school facilities, new classrooms, facilities maintenance. If it involves using CIP funds. For instance, if we have to reroof, our facilities development branch takes over. Last year we executed a budget of $287 million.
Q: That you wish would be a lot more?
A: We routinely ask for $300 to $400 million. We usually get, obviously, less than what we ask for.
Q: What are your must-do projects?
A: We acknowledge that the Campbell (High School) complex is certainly one of our top priorities due to overcrowding. We have had a huge population shift out that way ... We're trying to build a new classroom facility to help alleviate overcrowding. We're requesting a lot in repairs and maintenance. ... Mililani Middle is another one where we're trying to potentially get them off a multi-track system, where they need additional classroom space. They have four tracks. They basically run a year-round system there. ... We're looking at planning and design money initially to scope the project out. Another one we just broke ground on yesterday, actually, is Kihei High School on Maui. Again another very large-scale project.
"Safety and security is always at the top of our list. If we have an unsafe condition, the health and safety of our students and faculty are always at the forefront."
- AS Carlson
Q: How do you determine the priority?
A: Safety and security is always at the top of our list. If we have an unsafe condition, the health and safety of our students and faculty are always at the forefront. I would say second up there is capacity. If I have facilities that I can't even seat students in, that are not big enough for that, capacity comes pretty high. This past year, heat abatement was a priority for us and continues to be a priority for us. The governor gave us the line item for $30 million for heat abatement.
If I could emphasize anything, we used to go to a school and AC everything. We're taking a different approach. We did a heat abatement study using the Campbell complex to come up with ways we can passively cool rooms — painting reflective coatings on roofs, installing fans that turn on at night to bring in the cool air at night so when the teachers open their doors in the morning their rooms are much, much cooler. ... We're going classroom by classroom as oppposed to just blanketing and doing the whole facility.
Q: Wasn't Pohakea Elementary (in Ewa Beach) just recently done?
A: Pohakea is a great example. The electrical infrastructure doesn't allow us to just go in and add AC. We had to do an electrical upgrade first. That combined with the AC was around $4.7 miilion. It's a fairly small elementrary school. There are other costs to doing that. Utilities is probably the greatest example. Prior to having AC the utility bill at Pohakea was around $6,000 a month. After AC it went up to $14,000 a month. So you take those kinds of numbers and you realize, wait a second, we as the DOE, we've got to pay the utility bill as well, which is $48 million (each fiscal year). You multiply that by the numbers we have there from Pohakea, I would have to go back to the (Legislature) in upcoming years just for utilities. Then you have the operations, the maintenance and the replacement cost for ACs. We're trying to handle this, we acknowledge it's a huge issue ... but we're trying to do this in a fiscally responsible manner.
Q: Is there a special electricity rate for schools?
A: There isn't currently, but HECO (Hawaiian Electric Co.) went to the PUC (Public Utilities Commission) recently with a request to offer the DOE what we call a time-of- use rate. Our usage of electricity matches up very well with HECO's demand because HECO's big demand is between 5 and 9 in the evening. In general our facilities are not occupied during that time period. Their low-peak time periods are in the middle of the night and even in the morning when we're in class. What this time-of-use rate does is it would reduce our rate during the day but would also increase our rate during that 5 to 9 p.m. so we would have to manage that as a DOE, make sure we're doing the right thing. ... The anticipation is we would probably save around 10 percent. It's a very rough estimate, but if you take $48 million, I'll take the $4.8 million (in savings).
Q: A lot of work seems to be happening in West Oahu.
A: We acknowledge, and again it's been scientifically proven, that West Oahu is one of our hottest areas; our hottest campuses are out there. It's also factual that they're the worst with overcrowding issues.
We also have other areas. Maui is one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation; we are definitely ahead of that. (Also) we're actively engaged in TODs (transit-oriented development). With the rail system coming in we're aware that we will have population shifts. We're actively involved in a Kakaako project that would potentially offer a school in a joint-use type of facility. ... It will be a vertical school, the first of its kind here in Hawaii.
Q: Could you tell me how Ho'okele Elementary (in Kapolei) came together?
A: It was a design-build, which was a different way to go about building. With the partners we had we were able to build Ho'okele for $40 million. ... The amazing part was from the time they actually broke ground to the school opening was only 16 months. For a building project of that magnitude, again it was very impressive. It is a state-of-the-art facility.
Q: Are there any other projects or issues within facilities development?
A: We're looking at new ways of conducting business. We're kind of trying to get away from the standard low-bid process. We at times get stuck with a low bidder that we wouldn't necessarily want to be doing business with, but he won the bid and procurement laws drive that. We're developing kind of what we call a two-step, low-bid process where people can qualify to bid and then we can screen from that and then they'll be allowed to bid on the projects. It could help us weed out the bad actors that we sometimes experience.
Q: Is that, a lot of times, the difficulty you face?
A: It really is. We get stuck and it causes a lot of frustration. I acknowledge that. We have projects out there that have taken years and years and years to finish and oftentimes because we end up in this battle with the contractor on site.
Q: How do you keep track of all these projects?
A: Our guys are some of the hardest-working people I've ever worked with. Our project managers are running upwards of 70 projects at any one time ... I think industry standard is 20, if you're really getting worked hard.
Q: Let's go back to the low bidders. How do the problem contractors affect your work?
A: He'll low bid knowing good and well that he's going to add a number of change orders to increase (the cost) and be more expensive than some of the other bidders. That's where our frustration comes in. One, it delays the project usually, and obviously it increases the cost of the project.
Last year around this time we basically moved Keonepoko Elementary School due to the anticipated lava flow. We built a temporary school in minimum time out of trailers co-located with the high school. It was an incredible effort lauded by many people. Obviously Madame Pele decided not to continue her actions and change her direction. Those kids got to move back to their school.
As we were trying to figure out what to do with those trailers, we had such a need at Campbell. We took eight of those trailers and moved them to Campbell. In that six- month period that contractor managed to set up eight trailers. That includes removal, transportation, setup.
There are tons of success stories out there. Unfortunately we are highlighted for the ones that aren't going so well.
Q: Are there any other branches you want to highlight?
A: Facilities and maintenance. They do a phenomenal job. We did some emergency actions (with heat abatement) ... and they've been out on every weekend. We already covered about 230 portables with reflective coating. It's one way we can try to make it more thermally comfortable.
Transportation ... we've just seen some incredible transformation. We had a $72 million budget about five years ago. We have reduced that to $60 million.
Q: How did you do that?
A: We started on Oahu and we started by rewriting a lot of contracts, making sure that they were more competitive. In the process of doing that, we're using a lot more technology for route planning.
Q: You had to raise school lunches recently, correct?
A: We went to our board early last year to ask if we could raise the price of lunches this year. Obviously not something we wanted to do but something fiscally we needed to do. By statute we're required to do that because we have to charge at least 50 percent of what it costs to make a meal. At that time we thought we would have to ask for another 25-cent increase next year. But we are not going to have to do that. We continue to find some efficiencies within our school food services branch.
Q: How do you accomplish that?
A: Food cost has a lot to do with it. Labor cost is probably the biggest factor. Through the unions and collective bargaining our labor costs will increase. What we are able to do is we can take schools in close proximity of each other and if the school has a lower population and we have a good kitchen somewhere else, we may actually turn that into a satellite facility where we cook the food at one school and transport it over to the other school and serve there. ... Again it lowers our labor and we're finding some efficiencies.
Q: Was it an easy transition coming from a military setting to the DOE?
A: The organizations, while they are vastly different working in a state system as opposed to a federal system, are also somewhat similar. It boils down to leadership in a lot of ways and listening to people, understanding their problems and collaboratively coming up with a solution. I didn't have to step into a broken team of people that needed to be rebuilt. They've been working together for almost as long as I've been alive. It's a great environment.
I make it a point to make sure that I get out to the schools on a weekly basis, where you actually can see what it is you're doing and why, (to) be reminded.