Tuesday, June 15, 1999

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin

Equipment at Aiea Elementary is unsafe, but the
Department of Education says it doesn't have the
money to fix it. It's up to the schools to find funds.

Schools lack
funds to solve
safety risks

Isle public schools are
getting less money, while
schools on the mainland
are increasing spending

By Susan Kreifels


Tape has gone up around unsafe playground equipment at Hawaii's elementary schools -- and officials say it couldn't have happened at a worse time.

Funds for capital improvement projects as well as repair and maintenance in the Department of Education have dropped significantly for the coming year. That goes against a nationwide trend in which other states and local districts, with decaying buildings and a growing enrollment, are spending and borrowing billions of dollars more for public school construction.

Lester Chuck, DOE facilities director, said the Legislature approved $111 million for capital improvements next year, down from $150 million. The "guaranteed" special funding for capital improvements dropped from $90 million to $45 million. Much more serious, though, the repair and maintenance funding has been slashed from $26 million about three years ago to $9.6 million next year, Chuck said.

"We're just not going to be able to cut it," Chuck said yesterday, predicting the effects will hit in the 2000-2001 school year. "There will be more situations where we can't even repair the emergency things."

To make matters worse, the department has instructed its elementary schools to inspect playground equipment and remove any that is unsafe as part of a nationwide effort to meet new safety standards. The major concern is too-hard surfaces below and around play areas. Chuck said most elementary schools have safety problems with some equipment, and the department wants to avoid injuries and lawsuits.

Chuck said that approximately 200,000 schoolchildren across the country are injured and 10-20 die every year due to such problems.

"We can no longer wait to remove it (playground equipment)," Chuck said. "We've been putting it off, and nobody has really been concerned."

Even though parents want equipment replaced right away, Chuck said the schools may have to raise their own funds or find extra money in current budgets. Chuck said he doesn't know where other funding will come from, or when. The department may have to approach the Legislature next year.

"If the schools don't replace the equipment, we're not going to reopen unsafe equipment," said DOE spokesman Greg Knudsen.

Some primary concerns with aging playground equipment are not enough padding below the equipment, sharp edges, areas that are too tight, no clear fall zones, and lack of accessibility for disabled children.

A 1993 study said schools would need $200 million a year in capital improvement funds to keep up, and funding never reached that amount, Chuck said.

Unlike mainland schools, Hawaii has seen a drop in enrollment. According to Knudsen, officials are predicting a steady enrollment or tiny drop next school year: 187,378 compared to 187,395 during the just finished year. But Knudsen said those numbers can be deceiving. Shifting populations, such as Kapolei, still require new schools. And the number of special-education students has almost doubled in recent years, requiring far greater resources.

State Rep. Bob McDermott has taken up the cause of school maintenance and repair since parents at Radford High School, which is in his district, demanded the state fix up the school.

"Our schools are 40 years old," he said. "In the mainland, when they get 30 years old, they're talking about replacing them."

McDermott said he's "going after" the playground equipment problem, which he predicted will cost several million dollars and become a major issue.

The Associated Press reported yesterday that, according to the Census Bureau, school districts nationwide spent $18.7 billion on school construction in 1996, the latest year for which data was available.

The districts spent $15.9 billion in 1995 and $14.4 billion in 1994.

School systems in five states -- Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois and Florida -- borrowed more than $1 billion each for building construction, reconstruction and refinancing.


State education
administrators quizzed

With the academic year over for most public schools, here's an update on education-related issues:

Question: How did the Department of Education's budget fare at the end of the legislative session?

Answer: "Actually, the department did pretty well," said Evelyn Horiuchi, department budget office director. For the fiscal year beginning July 1, the department will receive $824 million, which is an increase from last year's budget of $709 million. Most of the increase will pay for improving the mental health and educational services to special needs students, collective-bargaining raises and developing a standards, assessment and accountability system. Programs will remain status quo, she said.

Q: What new schools will open and how will these openings affect enrollment at other area schools?

A: Kapolei Middle School is scheduled to open July 30 with sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders attending.

The new Leeward Oahu school will help to reduce enrollment at Ilima Intermediate School in Ewa Beach by about 300, said Lester Chuck, department facilities director. Enrollment at four elementary schools -- Kapolei, Makakilo, Mauka Lani and Barbers Point -- will be affected because sixth-graders that would have gone to these schools will attend Kapolei Middle.

Keaau High School in the Puna District of the Big Island is planned for an Aug. 2 opening, with only ninth-graders attending. Keaau High will help to alleviate the enrollment crunch at Waiakea High School in Hilo by about 300 students.

Q: In December, state Auditor Marion Higa criticized the state's effort to comply with the Felix consent decree. What is the state's plan for the next year in meeting a June 2000 compliance deadline in the federal lawsuit seeking to improve mental health and educational services to special needs students in public schools?

A: The goal is to bring all 40 school complexes into compliance with the Felix consent decree, which came about as a result of a 1993 lawsuit, by having more services in place and having these services delivered in a more timely fashion, said Doug Houck, the department's director of program support and development.

Student services coordinators, a new position, will be put in place to work with parents going through the referral process, Houck said.

Q: What's the status of the case of the 14-year-old Waianae Intermediate School girl accused in last month's death of cafeteria worker Iwalani Kaleikoa?

A: The case has been referred to the prosecutor's office for review, but there has been no decision whether to file charges. The DOE wouldn't comment on its position or on the status of the student, citing privacy policies.

Q: In March, Radford High School parents and students decried the deterioration of school buildings and facilities. What's being done?

A: Chuck said workmen are doing regular repairs that include cycle maintenance such as fixing termite damage. Some items are on order, including aluminum framing for termite-eaten lockers. Also to be done will be a capital improvement project to remodel and refurbish bathrooms.

By Crystal Kua, Star-Bulletin

E-mail to City Desk

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