Editor’s Note: This article is part of Civil Beat’s ongoing coverage of school consolidations in Hawaii. Read our related coverage:

Planted firmly in the heart of bustling Kaimuki, Queen Lydia Liliuokalani Elementary School‘s palm-lined entrance and deep green courtyard denote calm vitality. But the nearly 100-year-old school, dedicated by the namesake queen herself, is the latest setting for a schoolyard battle between education and economics.

Liliuokalani is one of five schools being considered for consolidation by the Hawaii State Board of Education. (Read our companion piece about the consolidations here.) A Hawaii Department of Education study of the entire Kalani complex concluded that closing the school would be more cost-effective than leaving it open, and consolidation would provide the students with better educational opportunities.

“There are some philosophical issues where (the education department) wants the students to have equal educational opportunities,” said interim principal Raelene Chock. “If we don’t have the resources and continue the way we are, we won’t be able to provide a lot of enrichment that the kids could get at larger schools.”

Standing opposite the department are the parents and community, who have made it clear they will fight to keep the school open — with some even proposing that it be converted to a charter school for middle-schoolers.

Brian Kang is the parent representative on the Queen Lydia Liliuokalani Elementary School Community Council. He has two daughters at the school: one in first grade and one in third.

“It’s a good, small environment for my kids,” he said, describing a community in which everybody knows each other and the teachers have time to give individual attention to students. “My older daughter in particular has done very well in that environment.”

But the small environment doesn’t appear to be working for every student. Liliuokalani has the lowest percentages of students proficient in reading and math compared with other elementary schools in that complex.

Underutilized, Generously Funded, But With Poor Test Scores

Chock, the interim principal, told me she can see “both sides” of the consolidation case. During a morning tour of the school campus, only 16 of 24 classrooms were being used for teaching. (The other eight serve as offices for various state and district department of education employees.)

There are 102 students enrolled at Liliuokalani — less than half its capacity of 242. Transferring the few lingering students to the other two underutilized elementary schools — Waialae and Liholiho — in the complex would increase school administration efficiency and educational opportunities, the education department’s study observes.

Because it qualifies as a small school under funding guidelines, Liluokalani received $8,760 per student from the department this school year, compared with the $4,000-$5,000 figures all the other (larger) Honolulu District elementary schools received.

The table below shows per-pupil spending by school. The weighted student formula (WSF) is the method the department uses to determine school funding.

WSF allocations-1

Small schools receive more per-pupil allocations so they can afford to provide basic services that every school needs, no matter how small. Larger schools are able to spread the cost of, say, a principal, or $5.4 million in capital improvements,1 among a larger population of students. Interim principal Chock said she doesn’t think it’s fair that the larger schools should have to subsidize the existence of Liliuokalani.

If the school were closed, the building would not be razed, Chock said. It would likely house more offices and perhaps after-school programs.

“This location is very central, so people are looking at it for various purposes,” she explained.

For parents like Kang, their attachment to the school is more sentimental.

“For our particular school, I think there have been real benefits for the kids in that smaller class environment,” he said. “It is a school with a long history. I don’t think we can put that aside. It will be 100 years old next year, and it was dedicated by Queen Liliuokalani herself. And the kids really do live in that tradition and uphold the values of Queen Liliuokalani.”

He understands that the education department is looking for ways to save money, and he acknowledges that there are fewer educational opportunities in such a small school. But the benefits outweigh the downsides, he said.

“I know the department sees it as a dollars and cents issue, but the whole job of the (department of education) is not to save or make money, but to educate the kids. If that’s the priority, then our school is definitely worth saving.”

Kang and other parents expect the board to hold a public hearing about the proposed consolidation on Dec. 13 at Kalani High School.

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