Hawaii Department of Education officials are hoping a new statewide facilities master plan will persuade lawmakers to provide more money for maintaining and renovating aging public schools and building new facilities.

Extensive and wide-ranging, the master plan lays out an exhaustive list of 1,300 desired capital improvement projects across all 261 DOE campuses.

It was published late last week on a website managed by Jacobs Engineering Group, an outside firm commissioned by the DOE to conduct the study.

The estimated total price tag for “top priority” projects, such as additional classroom space to account for overcrowding or basic repair and maintenance to make schools safer, is $7 billion, according to the 309-page report. That figure rises to $11 billion when accounting for all levels of priorities.

Under the DOE’s current approximately $300 million annual CIP allocation from the Legislature, those “Priority 1” projects — which include the “highest, non-negotiable needs” identified in each area of Hawaii — would take 23 years to address.

Central Middle School front lawn. Central Middle School is a historic school building in Honolulu, Hawaii, built on the grounds the former palace of Princess Ruth Keelikōlani of Hawaii.
Central Middle School is a historic school building in Honolulu, built on the grounds of the former palace of Princess Ruth Keelikōlani. The average age of the state’s school buildings is 60 years old. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“This is the first time the state Department of Education has a facility master plan – how are we going to invest in the important and often small amounts of CIP funding we get,” said Assistant Superintendent Dann Carlson, who is in charge of facilities for DOE.

“It also says, if we’re only to get $300 million for the next 10 years, this is what we can expect to get done, but the reality is we have a lot of priorities the communities have prioritized. We’re not going to be able to accomplish all that if we’re only getting $300 million a year.”

A Large List Of Needs

The master plan is the culmination of a years-long contract Jacobs had with the DOE to complete a statewide facilities assessment, evaluate how the needs match up with education standards and determine the best process to address those needs.

That contract was initially estimated to cost $4.6 million in 2014, but rose to $7.9 million as the scope was broadened from developing an Oahu schools’ master plan to a statewide assessment, according to contracts between DOE and Jacobs. 

The purpose of the master plan is to provide a “10-year roadmap” for school officials to consider how it wants to prioritize capital improvement projects and actually deliver on them.

“The goal of this facility master plan is simple: a quality school for every child, regardless of where they live,” the report states.

The categories for these capital improvement projects include capacity and instructional needs, such as building more classrooms that support STEM, visual arts, career and technical education. They also cover meeting gender equity and accessibility requirements, as well as basic repair and maintenance, starkly captured in anonymous comments sprinkled throughout the report.

“Main building is sinking in certain areas. I have to put my legs around the desk to stay still because my chair slides off,” the principal of Naalehu Elementary on Big Island, whose name is not included in the report, is quoted as saying.

The proposed projects include meeting basic needs such as air-conditioning for classrooms. But there are also highly ambitious proposals like a $20 million to $40 million construction project at Central Oahu’s Mililani Uka Elementary, complete with a new three-story classroom building, cafeteria, kitchen and covered multi-purpose area.

Another major proposal is a $40 million to $75 million plan for combining Jarrett Middle School with Palolo Elementary into a pre-K through 8 school, while turning the Palolo school building into a “Honolulu Professional Development Center.”

DOE officials emphasize that the wish list was compiled through extensive community engagement.

The effort involved 500 people, including parents, students, teachers, principals and administrators around the state. There were 100 workshops held during the past year culminating in a two day “summit” on Oahu in February to discuss goals and objectives, according to the report.

Inequitable Spending

DOE faces complicated challenges.

Many of its buildings are worn and aging — DOE facilities, which span 20 million square feet of space across the state, average 60 years in age. Changing migration patterns around the state have contributed to schools that are both over- and under-capacity. And a politicized system of “legislative add-on” line item projects often bump other projects off the DOE capital improvements priority list, the report notes.

“Without a strategic plan, the result has been sustained inequitable allocation of public resources, with some students benefitting at the expense of others who are under-represented,” the plan states.

There are schools in “high-growth areas” that are short of seats for up to 12,000 students. Other areas shrinking in population have “more than 22,000 surplus capacity for students that are no longer there,” the report notes.

Dann Carlson, Assistant Superintendent, Office of School Facilities and Support Services during joint senate/house hearing.
Dann Carlson, assistant superintendent for school facilities, said the facilities master plan is “a starting point” to drive DOE decisions moving forward. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The more open question is how the facilities master plan will drive DOE decisions moving forward.

There’s an existing DOE “priority list” for CIP projects and this plan is just a “starting point” to steer it in certain directions, Carlson said.

“It’s a valuable resource we can draw from and look at in making our decisions for planning as we go forward,” said John Chung, public works administrator for the DOE.

Where’s The Funding?

There are big questions about where the funding will come from. The plan recommends finding new funding sources and models, including issuing asset revenue bonds, or raising the sales tax, tourism tax or property tax for education.

The current funding framework is “insufficient to deliver top statewide priorities within a reasonable timeframe,” the plan says.

But the 10-year plan will take “a fundamental change of political institutions” that involves a “broad legislative information campaign and courageous leadership from HIDOE, Board of Education and legislature,” the report continues.

The DOE in the 2019 fiscal year requested $783 million for its CIP budget. The Legislature approved $281 million.

It’s not clear whether the existence of this new facility master plan will sway lawmakers in appropriating more down the road.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Donovan Dela Cruz said the DOE needs to come up with “a portfolio of ways” to fund projects and that the Legislature needs to balance the school system’s needs with other needs throughout the state.

“I don’t think the Legislature, or the governor or budget director will give up their fiduciary responsibility and just take whatever (figure) the board (of education) sends to the Legislature verbatim,” he said.

“There’s so many different needs statewide. There has to be a portfolio of ways to pay for these improvements, even new facilities.”

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