School-closing panel advances
A measure under review would create a panel to explore ways to boost educational efficiency
A state commission would be created to target underutilized public schools for possible closure or consolidation under a bill making its way through the Legislature.
What the new commission would do
A bill would create a Facilities Alignment Commission to "revitalize school facilities statewide." The panel would:
» Develop criteria for selecting schools to be consolidated, closed, expanded or to select sites for new schools.
» Compile a list of such schools by Feb. 28, 2007.
» Hold public hearings on the committee's recommendations.
» Submit a list of final recommendations to the 2008 Legislature.
The Facilities Alignment Commission also would identify areas where schools need to be built or expanded and would be patterned on the federal Base Re-Alignment and Closure process that shut hundreds of military installations worldwide in the name of cost savings.
Like the BRAC, the creation of the state commission is aimed at preventing local pressures related to job losses and community impact from influencing decisions, said Roy Takumi, House Education Committee chairman.
Ultimately, any money saved through more efficient facilities use can be pumped back into the school system, he said.
"Each school is not meant to be a jobs program. Our school system is about educating all of our children in the best way possible, and we need to look at that holistically," Takumi said.
The idea grew out of a report issued late last year by Gov. Linda Lingle's Economic Momentum Commission, which said, "Nearly half of state schools are significantly overbuilt for the student body population, while another 25 percent are overcrowded."
"Many of the urban elementary schools have been hollowed out, while many suburban schools are bursting at the seams," said the report, which faulted a lack of "political will" for failure to address the imbalance.
The report noted that the average age of public school buildings is 59 years, and that closing older facilities would save taxpayer money by reducing the Department of Education's festering $500 million-plus backlog of school repair and maintenance.
"Whenever you talk about the backlog, a lot of it applies to schools that perhaps should just be closed," Takumi said.
The commission's nine members would be appointed by the governor from nominees put forth by the Legislature.
They would meet soon after the legislative session ends this spring and develop criteria for selecting schools to be closed, consolidated or expanded or to determine where new schools should be built, and produce a corresponding list of such schools by early next year.
The state Board of Education would have to begin acting on the commission's recommendations in the 2009-10 school year. The bill already has cleared two House committees.
However, spokesman Greg Knudsen said the bill is unnecessary because administrative rules that govern school closures are already in place.
"There are too many things being legislated that should be left up to the DOE," Knudsen said.
The current rules require the DOE to consider closing a school once certain criteria are met, such as when enrollment dwindles to the point that one-third or more of available classrooms are unneeded.
"There's a whole process laid out involving hearings and public input and Board (of Education) approval. It's very thorough," Knudsen said.
However, the process has never been triggered, DOE officials say. If it had, it would require the DOE to form a task force -- half of whose members would be DOE staff -- to study the school in question.
Takumi said that the intent of the Facilities Alignment Commission is to creative a more proactive process that puts the final decision in the hands of a truly independent body.
"There are a lot of schools out there that make little sense to maintain, but if you try to close a school, it's very difficult. It's a very emotional thing," he said.
Yet identifying such schools may be more complicated than it appears, said James Toyooka, principal of 130-student Queen Liliuokalani Elementary.
Located in demographically aging Kaimuki, the school's enrollment from within the district has dwindled over the years, he said.
But it has stabilized, possibly as young families move back into homes they have inherited from their parents, he said.
"It's fairly typical for a school's enrollment to go up and down," he said.
In any case, geographic transfers of students from other districts have more than made up for any declines, now accounting for 25 percent of the total.
Toyooka also said there is not enough space in adjacent schools to accommodate his students.
The ultimate effect, said Knudsen, is that smaller schools could be punished despite the widespread belief that they do a better job of educating their students.
"It's clear that smaller schools do better, yet we're talking about closing them?" he said.