With four months until the new high school in Kihei is expected to open, Maui County Council members are growing increasingly frustrated that the Department of Education still won’t tell them how students will safely cross a busy four-lane highway to get to the new campus.

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Almost a decade ago, state planning officials told the DOE that if it wanted to build a school on the mauka side of Piilani Highway — the opposite side of most South Maui homes — that the department needed to build a “grade-separated crossing” to the school. In other words, the DOE either needed an underpass or a pedestrian bridge over the highway so students could cross safely before the school was allowed to open its doors.

But the DOE didn’t do that. Now, Maui County, which issues the permits that allow new buildings to be occupied, has said it could be forced to deny the school’s request to open in January if the DOE doesn’t follow state officials’ 2013 direction or get permission to do something else.

Construction of Kihei High School
Construction of the Kihei high school earlier this year. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

A group of council members planned to discuss the ongoing debacle during a meeting on Thursday. But DOE officials didn’t show up.

“This is embarrassing,” said Council member Mike Molina. “By them not even being here, that’s making a statement on their part: They don’t care.”

Council member Tamara Paltin, who leads the Maui County Council’s Planning and Sustainable Land Use Committee, said county staff reached out to a DOE architect and Superintendent Keith Hayashi to invite them to the meeting.

But they got “no response at all,” Paltin said.

“It’s unfortunate that the state Department of Education did not come and face the music, so to speak, with our community,” she said.

In a statement, the Department of Education said Randall Tanaka, assistant superintendent for facilities and operations, didn’t receive an invitation to the county meeting. The DOE did not respond to a request for comment about whether the superintendent or architect received an invitation.

The DOE said it’s currently working with the Department of Transportation on traffic safety plans and recently hired a third party to study the safe crossing options to the campus, which was recently named Kulanihakoʻi High School.

“This study is underway and includes broader community outreach than previous studies,” the statement said. The consultant’s recommendations are expected to be released later this month.

A photo of Kihei traffic
With simultaneous construction projects on Piilani Highway, residents traveling to and from Kihei are now dealing with almost constant congestion. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Community members have been pushing for a public high school in Kihei for decades, and many have been disappointed that it took until this summer for the DOE to finally begin analyzing whether it should build an underpass or an overpass to connect neighborhoods to the long-awaited campus.

In the meantime, the state Department of Transportation, which oversees the highway that leads to the campus, is currently building a $16 million roundabout at the school entrance. The DOT says the roundabout will provide enough of a safe passage for a small group of incoming students and has previously said that if that project doesn’t satisfy the safe crossing requirement, the school’s opening “may be delayed three to five years.”

That conflict among the state agencies has put Maui County officials in a difficult position.

A screenshot of one of the slides in a presentation made by the DOE’s consultant to Maui community members in August shows how many students live within two miles of the school. Screenshot of DOE presentation

“I think there are going to be families saying, ‘I’m sick of my kids having to go to Central Maui. C’mon, county — sign off,’” Maui Planning Director Michele McLean told council members during Thursday’s meeting.

“I can understand that sentiment,” she said. “They’ve been waiting a really long time.”

Right now, students from South Maui who attend public school have to endure frequent bumper-to-bumper traffic and travel miles away to Maui High School, in the central part of the island. McLean said that the county wants to be as “collaborative as we can” with the DOE to find short-term solutions that would be safe and allow the school to open for a small number of students until the permanent crossing is built.

A couple of the ideas floated around include ensuring that each student is bussed onto the campus or hiring a crossing guard to ensure children can safely cross the highway. But the state Land Use Commission, which originally told the DOE it had to build an overpass or underpass, would still have to sign off on the temporary workaround before the school could open.

The Department of Transportation has said that an overpass isn’t needed to accommodate for the smaller student body when the school first opens. Instead, it plans to have flashing beacons at the roundabout. Screenshot of DOE presentation

But some council members and community members say that the DOE has had long enough to come up with a solution. Mike Moran, president of the Kihei Community Association, urged county officials Thursday to draw a hard line: If the DOE doesn’t have a protected underpass or pedestrian bridge for children to cross the bustling highway, don’t open the school.

“We’re going to try and force the state Department of Education to do the right thing,” Moran said. “For nearly a decade, they have just refused — and have now painted themselves into a corner.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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