Considering Area School Closures

Larry Price
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Wednesday - June 11, 2008
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Hawaii’s public school system is unique in many ways, and education officials all over the Mainland have looked to Hawaii for possible solutions to their own problems. The major concerns in public education are financing, budgeting, equity, curriculum and how to deal with the urbanization of the public school system.

Because of a maturing population, the demographics of the state of Hawaii are evolving, and something has to been done to resolve the problem. Over the past 25 years, the statewide population has moved from the urban core to the suburbs, especially on Oahu, where the population has steadily moved toward Ewa. The same is true on Maui, where Kihei has overburdened public school facilities and left other areas underutilized. On Oahu, Kapolei and Mililani have beautiful new schools while other schools have lost half of their enrollment - and none have been closed or consolidated.

The question is, should public schools in these affected areas be closed, sold or used for other governmental purposes?

The state Legislature crafted a bill addressing the problem. It is on Gov. Linda Lingle’s desk waiting for approval or veto, depending on the input she receives from constituents. The word is she hasn’t decided, and I’m sure this effort will not convince her one way or another; however, this is an interesting problem for a lot of emotional reasons and is worthy of discussion.

The proposed legislation surfaced after the Department of Education announced last year it had a surplus of 356 classrooms because of declining enrollment. There are 176,369 students in the public school system, down from a peak of more than 189,000 a decade ago. The bill, HB 2972, would create a panel to identify schools that could be closed or consolidated. The panel would make recommendations by 2011 and focus on closing schools in 13 area complexes.

If the bill had stopped right there, it would have given the panel time to gather more information, but it didn’t. It listed the nine Oahu complexes (Castle, Farrington, Kahuku, Kailua, Kaiser, Kalaheo, Pearl City, Kaimuki and Waialua) and others on the Big Island (Hilo, Waiakea, Honokaa and Laupahoehoe), to name a few.

The communities mentioned were shocked at the idea, but not surprised. After all, it’s one thing to build new school complexes when the population dramatically increases, but it’s another thing when the school is sitting there half empty and demanding to be maintained.

The bill immediately aroused the competitive spirit of members of school community councils of the aforementioned areas. The consensus is the decision will be influenced by the “Who’s Who” in which districts, on what island and which elected official in the district is running for re-election. Of course, that is not true; but when it’s all said and done, many schools on the losing side of the closure argument will believe that’s exactly what happened.

Senate Education Committee chairman Norman Sakamoto offered a good analogy. In defending the bill, he said, “Why should taxpayers pull money out of their pockets when they are underutilized resources?” He went on to stress that lawmakers would look “not just purely at dollars.” There is little question there will be a lot of emotional community input when the time comes for it.

It’s important to mention that the DOE has been thinking about this state education dilemma since at least 2006, but the Board of Education has not revisited the topic. The BOE did appoint Breene Harimoto to head up an investigation and submit a report that will focus on ways to ensure all schools are in good shape and adequately equipped. Harimoto said, “It might make sense to consolidate small urban schools and perhaps use vacant ones for specialized educational programs.” He went on to remind others that closing rural campuses leads to other costs to relocate employees and transport students.

It’s a good bet that this bill will warrant a veto simply because a public school, no matter how small or rural, is more than just a school. Sakamoto, in defending the bill, compared the panel’s duties as similar to the work performed by federal commissions tasked with the closing of military bases. And while our congressional delegation has done a good job of saving many bases in the Hawaiian Islands over the years, the planned closures or consolidation of certain public schools will be much more emotional simply because there will be so many people affected.

At first glance, HB 2972 appears to be a proposal advocating the need for local school boards with the autonomy to make such dire decisions, but it is not. It might be a good idea to get a copy of this bill and prepare to defend the public schools in your district.

This is not a simple problem and will not produce a simple solution, although naturally, some people will claim there is a simple solution. These people might want to consider that oversimplification of any problem is simply a form of blindness.

(See Bob Hogue’s column in this issue of MidWeek for more on the bill.)

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