With interest, I read state Rep. Bob McDermott’s (R-Ewa Beach) recent letter to Hawaii Department of Education Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, published in another local news outlet. In his letter, McDermott states that Kihei does “not need” a high school.

Here’s why I respectfully disagree. In the 2010 census, Kihei, a narrow band along Maui’s south coast, was home to a bit more than 20,000 residents, 25 percent of whom were under the age of 18. Nearby Wailea had more than 5,000 residents (it’s unknown how many were minors). Next door, Maalaea is being redeveloped for housing projects, some “affordable” and sure to attract families. With children.

This idyllic image of the coast at Kihei belies the transformation taking place of this once sleepy along Maui's south coast.
This idyllic image of the coast at Kihei belies the transformation taking place of this once sleepy community along Maui’s south coast. blake.thornberry/Flickr

So, South Maui is undergoing rapid development along a narrow sliver of coastal land, with the 4-lane Piilani Highway as a main link to the rest of the island.

Broadly speaking, what’s happening to South Maui now recalls similar development on South Oahu, decades ago. Several months back, the wise Alex Haller, a program director of the Boys and Girls Club and a friend, told of me about the sleepier Kihei of his youth, growing up on Maui. He’s younger than me, but that sleepy Kihei, is gone and its future is uncertain.

Quoting unnamed sources, McDermott claims that we can only build one new high school for the next 15 years, and that West Oahu needs it more than Kihei. This argument conflates apples with oranges. South Maui is an opportunity for Hawaii to prevent the mistakes of the past from revisiting us. It’s cheaper to plan a community than it is to fix a community. West Oahu already manifests significant urban planning challenges that can’t be prevented, but have long needed remediation.

This graphic I made shows the distance that Maui students have to travel from “Kihei” (as determined by Google Maps and Google Earth) to the two Maui High Schools, with my point for Kihei superimposed over Kapolei High School, and the route to the high schools largely superimposed over H-1.

Blah blah blah
Most residents of Kapolei and Campbell school zones live no more than 2.5 miles from their respective high schools. But Kihei students must travel four times that distance to get to their high school. Dylan Armstrong

The majority of people in both Kapolei and Campbell school districts live within 2.5 miles of their high school (sparsely inhabited Barber’s Point and Koolina are further out from Kapolei H.S.). On the other hand, Kihei residents must travel between 9 to 11 miles to get to their high schools, and Wailea is even farther away. That will be untenable soon.

Pressure’s building on the agricultural lands still between Kihei and Kahului, which have been, historically, very productive. Better that Kihei become more of a functional community than a vast bedroom community. Basic sustainability suggests that South Maui will need its own high school.

McDermott’s claim of educational triage is not verifiable, given his reliance on unnamed, secondhand sources. Is spending money on a new school in Kihei seriously what’s preventing another school from being built here on Oahu? Or is a dearth of political capital to blame?

Government budgets are a product of finite resources, but there’s likely more going on here. We know the will isn’t lacking, judging by the laudable community response to this issue over the years through creative protests, rallies and other tactics.

Do not mistake me. We know that our students need more teacher attention, a cooler indoor climate and other environmental improvements in order to thrive intellectually. Those must be provided fairly for all. Friends of mine teach in the Leeward side’s hot, overcrowded and underfunded schools. One need does not negate the other — that’s the point.

If we look back a couple of generations to Hawaii’s civic leaders, we can rediscover the sense of lokahi and shared responsibility that at least some of our leaders put before self-interest. Therein lies a future for us all.

Fortunately, Rep. Matt LoPresti (D-Ewa Beach) is hosting a community event in Ewa this Saturday, Jan. 9, with state legislative leadership, some of the most powerful people in Hawaii. That’s may provide a fruitful start to addressing this challenge.

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