At the end of the last legislative session in May, many Hawaii Department of Education schools had plenty to cheer about. House Bill 1259 appropriated nearly $295 million for capital improvement projects to certain schools over the next fiscal year.

Approved requests included $2 million for a new performing arts center at Nanakuli High and Intermediate, $1.7 million for new baseball infield turf at Kailua High and $3 million for an all-weather synthetic track at Kealakehe High on Big Island.

That money was on top of $110 million for repair and maintenance projects statewide and $61.5 million for various capital improvement projects, such as building new classrooms to account for growing student populations or new athletic facilities to comply with federal laws.

Campbell High School students run on their dirt track that encircles their grass football field.

Campbell High School, the nexus of a Title IX lawsuit filed against the DOE in 2018, received a $6.3 million appropriation for a new track and field and other site improvements to the campus.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But despite the infusion of cash to some DOE schools for much needed improvements and upgrades to their grounds, it’s not clear how those projects got the green light ahead of others. It’s a perpetual concern the Board of Education is trying to address.

The BOE has asked DOE leadership to come up with specific criteria for executing both capital improvement and repair and maintenance projects. It is suggesting that projects should be prioritized by safety and accessibility, followed by a school’s socioeconomic and academic needs, according to a Nov. 21 BOE memo.

The DOE is expected to share its new criteria by Feb. 20.

An independently commissioned statewide facility master plan from last April said the DOE’s “funding requests are a detailed menu of projects allowing politics to drive decisions rather than common values and objective data.”

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

DOE Board Member Bruce Voss.

Board of Education member Bruce Voss.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hawaii may be the only state in the country where the Legislature approves school capital improvement projects on a line item basis, rather than a specific priority list submitted by the Department of Education. It’s also not clear how the lump sums it doles out for such projects are distributed by the DOE.

The DOE has requested another $229 million in lump sum capital improvement money in its supplemental budget request for fiscal year 2021, which starts July 1. The Legislature will decide what amount to approve this coming session, which begins next week.

Many DOE projects are informed by what school principals or complex area superintendents say they want.

“The product of that has been a system where some schools get more based on influence and power. That’s some of the dynamics we’re trying to address here,” said Bruce Voss, a board member and vice chair of the finance and infrastructure committee.

With DOE’s total 261 school campuses averaging 60 years old, no one disputes the need for new or improved school facilities across the board.

Some schools are not in federal compliance: a lack of girls’ athletic locker rooms at certain schools when the same is offered for boys’ teams has made the DOE non-compliant with Title IX, the gender equity law.

Additionally, lack of accessibility at some schools means the DOE is also not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Many of the capital improvement education line items from the 2019 session hammer away at these gaps, which is why so many of those approvals include construction of girls’ athletic locker rooms, softball field improvements and “architectural barrier removal.”

For instance, Campbell High School, the state’s largest high school whose lack of a girls’ athletic locker room, among other things, triggered an ACLU Title IX suit against the DOE in late 2018, received an appropriation of $6.3 million for a new track and field plus other ground and site improvements.

The BOE’s November memo considers federal compliance and other basic needs, like air conditioning, to fall under “safety,” and it has advised the DOE to prioritize such projects when it reports back with new criteria.

But for the first time, the board is also drawing a direct line between sagging and worn school facilities and the pace of student achievement. That’s why it’s asking the DOE to come up with an ordering system that prioritizes schools in low-income areas that struggle with things like chronic absenteeism, low graduation rates or high teacher turnover.

“Schools that have students with greater socioeconomic and academic needs should get more,” the memo states. “This may mean that schools with few students with great needs in those two areas get nothing. While the goal is equality, the process that we need to use to get there is equity.”

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 housed in a historic school building near downtown Honolulu.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

At one of the feedback sessions to the DOE’s next 10-year strategic plan, organized by the education nonprofit HawaiiKidsCAN last year, teachers stressed the importance of a school’s appearance to students’ quality of educational experience.

“What a school looks like says an awful lot about what (education officials) expect from those kids,” said Kevin Starks, a then-teacher at Central Middle School. “If you walk into a school that looks the way it does, (students) are going to make assumptions about themselves.

“If you’re really serious about equity, then (facilities upkeep) has to be at the forefront,” he said during a small breakout discussion.

No one is contending that meeting all of the DOE’s facilities’ needs will be cheap or that everything can be covered.

The 2019 facilities master plan completed by Jacobs Engineering Group estimated it would cost $7 billion to fund all top priority DOE projects, and that figure includes only the “highest ‘non-negotiable’ needs from each complex — not frivolous wish list items,” the plan noted.

The Board of Education recognizes there is only so much money to go around but it hopes by requesting the DOE to come up with some type of objective criteria, it can at least remove some of the secrecy that has historically been associated with funding such projects.

“The intent is to create a process that is fully transparent and can be used to inform the Legislature of what the departments’ priorities are and to clearly engage in a conversation with legislators on how best to fund those projects that are in most need,” said Voss.

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