Plan to consider merging schools should move forward
A bill forming a commission to review school closings is awaiting the governor's signature.
Closing or consolidating public schools is so sensitive an issue that state legislators gave themselves a bit of political cover in drawing up a bill for that purpose.
Regardless, the bill should get Gov. Linda Lingle's signature because keeping schools with empty classrooms open when other facilities are jammed with students isn't the best use of tax dollars. At the same time, however, student population should be just one of the considerations in making decisions, particularly in rural areas where schools often are community centers and closing one will mean long commutes for children.
These concerns have prompted some parents to ask Lingle to veto the measure that would create a nine-member commission, made up mostly of education professionals, to come up with criteria by which schools will be rated, and to recommend a list of closings or consolidations.
Not all of the state's public schools will be evaluated, and targeting some and not others likely will draw criticism. But over the years, schools in long-established neighborhoods, like Kaimuki and Kailua, have seen enrollment decrease as children grow up and move away. Meanwhile, schools in newer developments in Central and West Oahu, where younger families live, are crowded.
After looking at Department of Education enrollment figures, lawmakers decided to review districts with older demographics and lower numbers of school-age children, properly focusing the commission's work.
Parents on Hawaii island have legitimate concerns because schools in two of the three complexes there are being reviewed and, unlike on urban Oahu, distances between schools are much farther. Moreover, closing a facility in some instances will leave communities without meeting places and facilities for programs during non-school hours. It also can be argued that small schools provide a better learning environment.
This is among a number of issues the department and commission must consider, including enrollment projections, what to do with the land and buildings when no longer used for schools, costs savings and, most important, how closings and consolidations will affect student achievement.
After public hearings, sure to be lively events, the commission will forward recommendations to lawmakers before their 2011 session. The bill then requires the Board of Education "to comply with these recommendations if the Legislature does not disapprove of them in their entirety," meaning lawmakers cannot pick and choose from the proposals.
While the provision guards against legislative favoritism, it also provides political shelter in making a controversial decision. Nonetheless, the bill's objectives are sound.