Debate back to fixing schools
The state surplus is generating conflicting calculations about how much is needed
With dozens of competing programs and causes competing for the state's ample revenue surplus, one clearly has risen once again to the top of the Hawaii legislative agenda: education.
Two years ago education took top billing as the Legislature passed a major education reform bill after rejecting a plan by Gov. Linda Lingle to break up the state's single school district.
Last year other issues rose to the top, including the need to address the state's lack of affordable housing and Honolulu's call for mass transit.
Now education is back.
In 2006, fixing the state's crumbling school buildings appears to be leading the causes that have climbed to the top of the Legislature's to-do list as they prepare to dole out a projected $574 million surplus.
Republicans and Democrats, even among themselves, disagree on how much of the surplus to use and how much to give back to taxpayers, but there's no disagreement over the need to spend a lot of it for school repair and maintenance.
Democrats want to allot $150 million. Gov. Linda Lingle has proposed spending $90 million.
It was just a year ago that a classroom ceiling at Kailua Intermediate -- built a half-century ago to outdated standards -- collapsed on 13 students and their homeroom teacher. Eight children and the teacher were sent to the hospital with minor cuts and bruises.
The bill for school buildings' current needs is estimated to have reached $524.5 million. And the Department of Education says it needs up to $200 million a year just to keep schools in current condition.
Education historically has been a top priority of the Legislature because it is something people feel passionate about, and it is one of the core functions of government, said Rep. Roy Takumi, chairman of the House Education Committee.
Two years ago, when education was a hot topic, the state didn't have funds to take a significant bite out of the schools' maintenance needs. Now it does, said Takumi (D, Pearl City-Pacific Palisades).
The Democrats want $100 million to come from the surplus, and $50 million from bonds.
Republican leaders point out that more than $500 million already has been appropriated for the school's fixes. "There's no emergency to throw more money at a half-billion-dollar fund," said Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings.
The reason the money hasn't been spent is that the education department's system for fixing the buildings moves so slowly, said Hemmings (R, Lanikai-Waimanalo).
"Money's not the problem; management is," he said.
But Schools Superintendent Pat Hamamoto said the money hasn't all been the department's to spend. She said only $344 million has been released by the governor.
Lingle denies that her administration is sitting on money meant for schools.
On Thursday she released $39.3 million for repair and maintenance projects at 232 public schools statewide.
The issue is with the department's priorities, she said.
The Board of Education has defined a list of funding priorities. Lingle said she will not release the funds for projects further down the list when projects higher up haven't been addressed.
"We have a very thorough process. We want the department to stick to its priorities," she said last week.
The governor's system likely needs to be revisited, Hamamoto said.
And while the list is essential for the board to manage the mountain of requests it receives, the Legislature does not need to stick with the board's list when it's making appropriations, she said.
Meanwhile, those appropriations made over the last three years won't last forever. They each expire after three years if unused. And if the money isn't released by the governor, work can't start on the projects, Takumi said.
All the money released so far has been spent or is slated to be, by the time the dollars expire in June 2007, he said. "So they can handle more money."
Takumi noted that while there's always been a backlog for repairs, the price has never been this high, as construction costs continue to rise.
"Just like (if) you want to renovate your kitchen today, you're going to wish you did it three years ago," he said.