The head of the new state school construction agency is asking the Legislature to fund three additional positions to help build and renovate up to 200 preschool classrooms by June 2024.

The School Facilities Authority, created in 2020, has $200 million for the task but is off to a slow start with only three people working on it so far.

Executive Director Chad Keone Farias presented his case Monday to the House Finance Committee, asking lawmakers to create three additional positions, including a project manager, a planner and a budget analyst.

“The challenge is the race against the clock,” Farias said in an interview after the legislative briefing. “We’re working as fast as we can.”

Hawaii currently has 50 preschool classrooms. Lawmakers allocated $200 million to the School Facilities Authority to build and renovate 200 public school classrooms. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2017

The state has long dealt with a need for preschool classrooms as many that exist are at total capacity. That issue was heightened by the coronavirus pandemic, which forced some facilities to close their doors permanently.

Last year, lawmakers allocated $200 million to offset those shortages with the construction, expansion or renovation of prekindergarten facilities across the state. But the School Facilities Authority must spend the money by the end of June 2024.

Farias, a former principal and complex area superintendent at the state Department of Education, said he needs more staff to get the work done faster as the authority barely has a working website and a temporary office in Hilo. He said he also hopes to get a permanent office for the state authority in Honolulu.

During the meeting, Rep. Bertrand Kobayashi said people were unsupportive of the new authority when it started and asked Farias if he anticipates any milestones in the next couple of years.

“I’m a little surprised that you still don’t have staff fully on board,” Kobayashi said.

Farias said the authority will make progress by next year. When lawmakers introduced legislation to create the authority, many questioned how the agency will work, transparency and oversight, and duplication of the DOE’s duties.

“Since then, I felt a bunch of pushback in certain places, so I’ve become aware that maybe people weren’t fully supportive of this,” Farias responded. “I still believe in our core mission that we can do this work.”

Hawaii now has 50 public preschool classrooms. Farias said the authority identified 60 sites to renovate public school classrooms into preschool classrooms, which varies between DOE campuses and public charter schools.

Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, the former House finance chair who has long championed universal access to preschools, said she regularly meets with the School Facilities Authority.

“I’m not concerned about their ability to spend the money because we’ve been working very aggressively to come out with a spending plan,” Luke said in an interview.

Luke said the authority will outline publicly a plan for spending the $200 million on Jan. 17.

Luke also she’s looking into extending the deadline if necessary.

But Cheri Nakamura, director of the He’e Coalition, an education advocacy group, said the authority has a lot on line to make the deadline because it’s important for kids to obtain early learning education to prepare them for the K-12 schools.

“We want them to hit the ground running and be prepared,” Nakamura said. “So I think that’s why attention needs to be put onto this early learning environment and resources are being provided.”

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

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