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Officials explore options for consolidating schools


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POSTED: Sunday, November 02, 2008

Facing steep budget cuts, the Hawaii Department of Education wants to make it easier to close or consolidate small schools to save money.

A plan moving through the state Board of Education would allow Superintendent Pat Hamamoto to examine school closures or mergers when campuses meet certain criteria, including declining enrollment, vacant classrooms and the ability of nearby schools to accommodate extra students.

Current rules direct complex area superintendents to initiate such a study by appointing a task force through a "cumbersome and painful" process aimed at weighing benefits and disadvantages of shutting down schools, according to the Education Department.

There are 177,871 isle students enrolled in public schools, down from a peak of more than 189,000 a decade ago. In the 2006-07 academic year, there were 10,408 classrooms among Hawaii's 257 regular public schools, a 356-class surplus.

School closures have been discussed in the past, but talks often become emotional and stall as communities rally behind their schools. Earlier this year, following a public outcry, Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed a bill to form an independent panel tasked with recommending possible school closures by 2011.

The last Hawaii school to close was Anuenue Elementary in June 1987, though it reopened a few years later as an immersion school.

However, with the state eyeing $70 million or more in cuts to the $2.4 billion schools budget, officials are taking a closer look at the cost of electricity, staffing and maintaining underutilized schools. Closing a single school could save the Education Department more than $500,000 a year on average, said Assistant Superintendent Randy Moore.

For example, Keanae Elementary on Maui has been without students since 2005 but remains open for public use. The Education Department wants to have the state take over the school. But until then it has been paying for a custodian, electricity and water, and even funded a $440,000 cesspool project.

"It gives a little more urgency to it," Moore said about the need to streamline the process to close schools during tight economic times, "but it's something that we have actually talked about for a while."

A school board committee has approved the revised guidelines, which the full school board will take up Thursday. If adopted, it would need to be debated in public hearings and receive Lingle's signature before becoming law. Moore emphasized that while the proposal seeks to speed up the process to close schools, it still requires community input.

The school board also is considering a separate money-saving initiative through which Education Department employees working in rented office space would move into vacant classrooms as long it doesn't disrupt instruction.

"We are spending quite a bit of money on rental facilities," said school board member Karen Knudsen, "so we may determine that a school would be better used for administrative purposes if there are just a handful of students in that school."

The Education Department has identified at least four elementary schools that could be closed, including Wailupe Valley, Liliuokalani and Keolu on Oahu and Maunaloa on Molokai.

Maunaloa Elementary Principal Joe Yamamoto said closing his school - which the Education Department says fits 121 students but serves just 58 - would force children to take a 32-mile round trip to Kaunakakai Elementary School. Students would have to wake up too early, and travel costs would balloon because a gallon of unleaded gas is about $4.89 on the rural island, he said.

"If we are talking about families readily going there for conferences and activities, I'm quite sure it's not going to happen," Yamamoto added, noting that most of his students qualify for free and reduced lunch, a measure of poverty.

The school-closure bill blocked by Lingle would have focused on 13 area school complexes, including Hilo, Waiakea, Honokaa and Laupahoehoe on the Big Island and Castle, Farrington, Kahuku, Kailua, Kaiser, Kalaheo, Pearl City, Kaimuki and Waialua on Oahu. It also proposed expanding schools that have been relying on portable classrooms to handle an influx in students in sprawling neighborhoods, said House Education Chairman Rep. Roy Takumi, the bill's author.

Takumi (D, Pearl City-Pacific Heights) said schools with few students can be closed and converted into preschools, be used by charter schools or house specialty programs. He praised education officials for revisiting the issue, noting the backlog in repair and maintenance for schools grew to $412 million in May, up from $341 million in September 2006.

"I'd say it's about time, given the economic situation we are in today," Takumi said. "I'm glad that they are moving forward. If they get stalled up or if I don't see any progress ... the plan would be to introduce legislation once again."

Fred Pollock, who fought Takumi's measure as parent representative for the Laupahoehoe School Community Council, argues it would be dangerous to bus students to neighboring schools on a road bordered by gulches where landslides are frequent.

"I think when people here become fully knowledgeable about what's going on, that they will do everything to prevent this school from being closed," he said.