The rickety outdoor stairs leading to the second floor of Hilo Intermediate School are loosely blocked off by yellow caution tape. Wood chipped off the building’s exterior earlier this year, threatening nearby students.

Problems at the nearly century-old Big Island school are on a long list of statewide repair projects that are part of a growing backlog as the Department of Education’s facilities maintenance team struggles to keep aging buildings safely in operation.

Aaron Kubo, a social studies teacher at the school, also said tile pieces have fallen from the ceiling indoors in past years.

“With these repairs, if they’re not addressed somebody is going to get hurt,” Kubo said. “Safety should be on the forefront of our minds and taking care of those who are our future should be a priority.”

Yellow caution tape blocks access to Hilo Intermediate's Building A, back unsafe stairway. The historic school opened in 1929. Photo: Tim Wright
Yellow caution tape blocks the access to Hilo Intermediate’s building. The historic school opened in 1929. Tim Wright/Civil Beat/2022

The DOE’s facilities maintenance branch is responsible for 4,425 buildings statewide, which is more than 20 million square feet of space, according to the department’s figures. It’s kept busy as some 20% of Hawaii’s 257 public schools are more than 100 years old and the average age of school buildings in the islands is 72.

The department has long been criticized for its hefty repair and maintenance backlogs, and data shows not much has changed.

A backlog of more than 4,600 repair projects with an estimated cost of $1.4 billion is a sharp increase from 3,800 backlogged projects in 2018.

The 2022 Legislature appropriated $1.2 billion in capital improvement projects such as outdoor learning spaces and designs to the DOE but only $256 million for repair and maintenance projects, according to Rep. Kyle Yamashita, who heads the capital improvement projects subcommittee in the House Finance Committee.

The School Facilities Authority, which was created last year to handle all public school development, planning and construction projects, also got $200 million to build preschools.

The Legislature has been giving the education department more money each year, but “it’s never enough” to meet the growing backlog, according to Yamashita.

“The Legislature has been very generous with the department, and it’s definitely gotten more than its fair share of the budget,” Yamashita said.

Yamashita noted the high number of backlog cases doesn’t tell the whole story since it includes a range from high-priority roof maintenance that may present a potential safety hazard to a leaning fence on school property, he said.

Civil Beat requested an interview with Randall Tanaka, the assistant superintendent for DOE facilities, for this story, but the DOE did not make him available.

Wet rot damage is visible Tuesday next to a downspout on the top landing and support column at Hilo Intermediate's Building A, back stairway. The historic school opened in 1929. Photo: Tim Wright
Wet rot damage is visible next to a downspout on the top landing and support column of Hilo Intermediate’s building. Tim Wright/Civil Beat/2022

Education officials have tried various initiatives to try to address delayed repairs and maintenance issues.

The board’s finance and infrastructure committee will meet on Thursday to discuss the budget and tools aimed at better controlling the backlog, including a database introduced in 2019 as a way to track and determine maintenance priorities. Previously there was no way to do so.

The department also implemented two other online programs in 2019, Facilities Asset Management and the Hawaii Facilities Inspection Tool.

FAM is used by the department to come up with strategies to sustain school infrastructure such as roofs, fire alarms, air conditioning, water and sewer lines, and building structures.

The HI-FIT inspection tools enables the department to assess the buildings’ internal and external structure, conditions and cleanliness. It also allows school principals to provide input on the repairs and maintenance needs of their schools.

But when asked if the backlog will ever be significantly reduced, Board of Education Chair Catherine Payne said “the answer to that is we are never caught up.”

In the database, the department identified 201 deferred maintenance projects statewide at a cost of more than $82.9 million. It also rated the conditions of the facilities with 10 being the highest. The average rating was a three, which means schools are in critical need of repairs.

The main repairs schools need are for roofs, exteriors, windows, walls, stairs, ramps and plumbing.

“Leaky roofs would have a priority because you have to close classrooms,” Payne said.

To date, there are currently more than 1,452 construction projects statewide, totaling more than $185 million, according to the department’s website. About 56% of the projects have been completed.

Kubo said it’s hard to be optimistic about repairs at Hilo Intermediate, which was built in 1929 and has experienced decades of problems.

“I don’t know how many plans we’ve been on to try to replace our building or refurbish the building,” Kubo said. “They’ve hired an architect, and nothing ever happens. So people just lost faith already because the building was designed a century ago.”

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