Repair and maintenance work at any one of the Hawaii Department of Education’s 256 aging school buildings is so commonplace, the budget for this work surpasses that of desired classroom upgrades, including facilities for new STEM labs.

The DOE has a whopping backlog of 3,800 repair projects statewide. But even with a budget of $274 million, it can’t get to those repairs quickly enough, with the appropriation/design/bid/construction cycle averaging a glacial seven years.

But under a new DOE initiative that leverages a new contract procurement process and database to track the pending backlog in real time, the DOE hopes to shorten those years to months, leading to much quicker fixes to sagging roofs or faulty ventilation systems.

“We’re making it much less cumbersome,” said Dann Carlson, assistant superintendent for school facilities and support services, during a presentation to community stakeholders at Impact Hub Honolulu on Tuesday morning.

Dann Carlson, DOE’s assistant superintendent for school facilities and support services, takes questions from community members about plans to bring greater transparency to the status of school repair projects. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

The presentation was the fourth in a speaker series launched by Transform Hawaii Government, a nonprofit that promotes better government accessibility and transparency through technology.

The intended audience for such talks — which have featured Chief Election Officer Scott Nago and Hawaii Chief Innovation Officer Todd Nacapuy — are community groups that have “an interest and appreciation of the modernization efforts of state government,” said THG Executive Director Christine Sakuda.

“The subject matter can be a little dense,” she said, but the idea ultimately is to create public awareness of government modernization efforts.

Subject matter density was apparent in Tuesday’s DOE presentation, which was as much a summary of the DOE’s new “Future Schools Now” framework as it was an attempt to explain how information flow works within the agency.

“Our state departments, including the DOE, are way behind the IT race,” state Sen. Michelle Kidani, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said in opening remarks to kick off the presentation. She added that the quality of education depends on “having access to technology.”

Carlson said a new online database that the DOE plans to roll out soon to complex area superintendents and Board of Education members will consolidate all pending school repair and maintenance projects.

Asked by Sakuda about the impact of such a tool, Carlson said it would be felt “particularly for folks in my shop.”

“We can teach people to pull information,” he said.

The top maintenance priority for Hawaii’s schools is roofing repairs, followed by heating, air conditioning and ventilation needs, then electrical upgrades.

“Our school facilities play a critical role in providing equitable access to a quality public education for all students,” Hawaii school superintendent Christina Kishimoto said in a recent statement.

One in five DOE buildings are over 100 years old. About two in five are more than 65 years old.

In the DOE’s capital improvements biennium budget, repair and maintenance ranks second only to the “capacity” category, which refers to the construction of new schools and classrooms, a priority to relieve school overcrowding and rising enrollment in some areas.

Shifting school populations, like declining student numbers in Kaimuki but increasing enrollment on the Ewa side, complicates the capital improvement process, Carlson said.

One of the changes with the new DOE procurement process is being able to group repairs into bulk projects over a multiyear contract. The price of nonconstruction fees through partnerships with these new vendors will also be lower: 12 cents on the dollar versus 35 cents on the dollar, according to Carlson.

“I can execute projects much quicker, within months, as opposed to four to seven years,” he said.

The Hawaii Department of Education’s facilities maintenance branch is accountable for 4,425 buildings across 256 school campuses statewide. That amounts to more than 20 million square feet of space, according to the DOE.

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