Despite opposition from developers and the city, the Hawaii Board of Education voted Tuesday to establish a new district along the planned Honolulu rail line from Kalihi to Ala Moana to help cover the cost of school services for the area’s anticipated population increase.

After the Department of Education conducts a fee study, first-buyers, renters or residential developers in the district would likely be required to pay fees and donate land to the department.

Opponents say that will make housing more expensive.

School impact districts already exist in Leeward Oahu, West Hawaii, and Central and West Maui.

The Department of Education expects 1.2 children for every 10 new residential units within the district. Department of Education

The district was proposed based on the assumption that almost 39,000 new units along the 4-mile stretch will be built, according to board documents and a DOE analysis. Preliminary plans call for a $584 construction fee and a donation of .0016 acres of land for every unit. 

DOE Assistant Superintendent Dann Carlson told Civil Beat that buyers who don’t want to give up any land may be charged a fee of $4,000 to 9,000, though he emphasized even that wide range was uncertain.

Based on those numbers, Carlson estimated the DOE could collect at least $210 million if all 39,000 unit owners decline to give up land. He said it’s too early to speculate about how much land the department might ultimately take in.

If all 39,000 units are built, the DOE would receive a total of 63.5 acres of land and almost $23 million, according to an earlier draft of the plan. If a fee was paid in lieu of land for all those units, the department would make more than $360 million.

Senior housing units that prohibit children would be exempted.

In testimony, Carlson said the department would consider creating different fees for each neighborhood in the district after hearing testimony at a Tuesday afternoon Finance and Infrastructure Committee meeting. But the task would be “very difficult,” Carlson said, partially because he has just one employee who can do the job.

Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee testified during the meeting that the union supports the school impact fee district, arguing schools need to focus on improving their facilities.

He said when he taught at Campbell High School there were so many students that many teachers were forced to “float” from classroom to classroom. A school impact fee district could prevent that from happening again, he said.

Much of the testimony BOE received about the impact fees touched on affordable housing. Developers and the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting oppose the fees.

At the committee meeting Tuesday, Harrison Rue of the Department of Planning and Permitting said equity was important and noted the fees for the Kalihi-Ala Moana District were more than twice as high as those in Ewa Beach.

Board of Education member Bruce Voss addressed housing costs.

“This impact fee, if it’s enacted in the $9-10,000 range, will have the most unfortunate effect of killing off affordable housing opportunities for our most needy — including, by the way, some of the parents of our students,” Voss said. “The fact is that equity and excellence in our public school facilities is going to require hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer commitment. We are kidding ourselves to pretend that this impact fee is going to make any material difference in that.”

Rail guideway HART Pearl City looking west. 8 may 2017
In 2013, an impact district was designated in Pearl City. Now, rail is being built in the area. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In a Monday interview with Civil Beat, Rep. Matt LoPresti said it was “dumbfounding” that any BOE members would be concerned about affordable housing policy because “it’s their job to make sure students and teachers are taken care of.”

In February, LoPresti filed a complaint regarding the proposed school impact fee district with the state Ethics Commission. In it, he wrote that almost all board members had interests in real estate development and should have “disclosed … or asked for a ruling on a potential conflict of interest” in order to vote on the fee.

He partnered with Common Cause Hawaii, an organization that advocates for the public interest, and issued a press release Monday urging board members to disclose potential conflicts of interest or recuse themselves from a vote.

Board members should be elected, not appointed, LoPresti said, adding, “Monied, connected people” make decisions that favor similar people.

Impact fees would bite into developers’ profits, he said, noting the Legislature had killed bills to exempt affordable housing developers from impact fees.

Sen. Will Espero, who sponsored one of those bills, said even though the bill died, it “went to the very end” and died in conference committees. House and Senate conference committees are established to resolve conflicts over a bill.

“The majority of the members on this committee are either developers or tied to developers … and they have repeatedly delayed implementation of impact fees that benefit children,” thus helping developers, he said.

LoPresti reiterated his concerns in testimony to the board, in which he said he supported the school impact fee district. Read his full complaint here.

More Money To Be Sought From Legislature

Also Tuesday, the board also voted to approve a new weighted student formula for the next two school years.

The formula is a means of divvying up funding for Hawaii schools. It allocates a baseline amount based on student enrollment, then makes adjustments (or “weights”) based on how many students are “gifted and talented,” speak limited English, are economically disadvantaged or transient.

Members of the House gaveled in during beginning of session on 2 May 2017.
Board members said Tuesday that they were disappointed by the amount of money that the Legislature appropriated for education. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Weighted student formulas have been used in school districts nationwide, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — the three largest cities in the country.

While the WSF tends to help larger schools, it can hurt smaller schools in rural areas. The Committee on Weights, a group of mostly principals and teachers designated to set specifics for the WSF, noted these objections in its recommendations to the board.

The new formula’s baseline amount will be adjusted to reflect changes in average salaries for schools’ financial plans, which happens every two years, according to board documents. Calculations based on committee recommendations show average salary changes at various school levels could result in a net increase of $87.6 million to the WSF baseline.

Weights will be increased for English Language Learners, with different values assigned to students with levels of proficiency from fully proficient to non-proficient. ELL could receive $10 million more in support, according to the report.

If the DOE gets more money for the WSF program, homeless students will be a funding priority for the first time and ELL students will get additional support. The committee estimated this could cost $2.3 million.

Committee recommendations ask the board to seek an extra $258 million for the WSF in fiscal years 2018 and 2019, which overlap the next two school years.

Teacher Rachael Hussey reads book in class to students at Malama Honua charter school in Waimanalo. 22 dec 2016
If the DOE can secure more funding from the Legislature, homeless students would be a priority in the weighted student formula. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The committee also recommended the DOE work with the state to find more community resources for students.

“Additional funds and community partnerships are critical to advance equity and excellence for all schools and every student,” the committee wrote.

The board’s Committee on Weights won’t meet again until 2019, according to the DOE website.

At the Finance and Infrastructure Committee meeting, board member Brian De Lima thanked the committee for its hard work and said asking for an extra $258 million may draw criticism. Schools can get into a routine of asking for only what they think they can get from the Legislature, he said — “not what they really want or need.”

“We’ve come to accept that in a lot of ways,” he said. “In some ways that’s the local style, ‘Hey, let’s not make waves.'”

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