Lingle is urged to veto school bill
The legislation would create a commission to identify schools to close and consolidate
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Small public schools throughout Hawaii would be on the chopping block if Gov. Linda Lingle signs a bill to 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 school complexes. They include nine Oahu complexes, Castle, Farrington, Kahuku, Kailua, Kaiser, Kalaheo, Pearl City, Kaimuki and Waialua, according to the bill. The others are on the Big Island: Hilo, Waiakea, Honokaa and Laupahoehoe.
Some Laupahoehoe High and Elementary parents are urging Lingle to veto the legislation, which they fear could lead to the demise of their rural school where enrollment has sunk to about 200 students.
Fred Pollock, whose child attends Laupahoehoe, argues that nearby schools in Paauilo and Honokaa are crowded. He also said busing children to those schools would be dangerous because the road is unsafe.
But Senate Education Chairman Norman Sakamoto said lawmakers have to make sure taxpayers' money is spent wisely. "Can we be more efficient? Can school sites be used for other purposes?" he asked. "And if we are needing to do consolidation, how do we address the needs of the community?"
Lingle is aware of the concerns but has not decided whether to sign the bill, said a spokesman.
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A bill designed to save the state money by closing or consolidating public schools with few students is worrying parents at Laupahoehoe High and Elementary who fear the campus would be the first to shut its doors.
A bill awaiting Gov. Linda Lingle's signature would require the state to study whether to consolidate or close public schools in these area school complexes:
» Hilo, Waiakea, Honokaa and Laupahoehoe on the Big Island
» Castle, Farrington, Kahuku, Kailua, Kaiser, Kalaheo, Pearl City, Kaimuki and Waialua on Oahu
Source: House Bill 2972
Some parents from the 200-plus-student school on the Big Island are urging Gov. Linda Lingle to veto House Bill 2972. Under the measure, a nine-member commission would have until 2011 to identify schools that could be closed by relocating their students to larger ones.
The law comes after the Education Department announced last year it had a surplus of 356 classrooms because of declining enrollment. There are 178,369 students in the public system, down from a peak of more than 189,000 a decade ago.
At Laupahoehoe, which once had as many as 800 students, enrollment has dropped since the demise of sugar cane in the 1990s, residents say.
But parents there are concerned about where they would send their children if the rural school closed, arguing that nearby schools in Paauilo and Honokaa are crowded.
Fred Pollock, parent representative for the Laupahoehoe School Community Council, also said it would be dangerous to bus students to neighboring schools on a road bordered by gulches where landslides are frequent.
Pollock, who has a child in first grade, said some people feel Laupahoehoe was targeted in a law that would focus on closing schools in 13 area school complexes, four of which are Hilo, Waiakea, Honokaa and Laupahoehoe on the Big Island.
The other nine areas, all on Oahu, include Castle, Farrington, Kahuku, Kailua, Kaiser, Kalaheo, Pearl City, Kaimuki and Waialua, according to the bill introduced by House Education Chairman Roy Takumi and Rep. K. Mark Takai.
Takumi could not be reached for comment yesterday, but Senate Education Chairman Norman Sakamoto defended the bill, comparing it to a federal commission tasked with closing military bases.
"Why should taxpayers pull money out of their pockets when they are underutilized resources?" he said, stressing lawmakers would look "not just purely at dollars." Officials also would seek input from the community if school closures were suggested.
Lingle, who has until July 8 to sign the bill, said she is aware of the concerns in Laupahoehoe and that her administration was reviewing the legislation and seeking feedback. She said closing schools lacking enough students is "a valid idea" to be examined, but acknowledged those decisions can become emotional.
"It's not going to be an easy issue," Lingle said. "I think what this commission does, it just sets up the process. The final decision will be far down the line."
In 2006, education officials identified at least four clusters of elementary schools for possible closure.
Officials found, for example, that Aina Haina Elementary could take all the students from Wailupe Valley Elementary, which can hold 208 students but had only 114 at the time. And Liliuokalani Elementary, with a 267-student capacity, also was listed for having 124 students who could move to Aliiolani Elementary in Kaimuki.
But the Board of Education has not revisited the topic, and directed a group to examine it.
School board member Breene Harimoto, who is heading that effort, said an upcoming report 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.
But closing rural campuses leads to other costs to relocate employees and transport students, he warned.
Laupahoehoe is being restructured for missing annual progress benchmarks under the federal No Child Left Behind law, but teacher Victor Solt said there are success stories: His English students have met NCLB targets, a 10th-grader won a Hawaii Education Association writing contest, and a commercial produced by the school's broadcast class aired on TV last Wednesday following the "American Idol" finale.
He said lawmakers should preserve small schools with low teacher-student ratios and instead shave administrative expenses.
"You should be trimming the fat, not cutting out the filet mignons," Solt said.
-Star-Bulletin reporter Nelson Daranciang contributed to this report.