When Andrew Beerer first started pushing for a high school in South Maui, his children were just starting grade school. He was a member of Kamaliʻi Elementary’s PTA, and they’d just wrapped up dealing with Furlough Fridays — the contentious measure to slash state spending so students attended classes just four days each week.

Maui County locator map

He and other parents decided Kihei needed its first public high school so students didn’t have to be bused more than 10 miles away to campuses in Central Maui.

Over the course of the journey trying to get the school open, Beerer spent hundreds of hours in community meetings, paid to fly to the State Capitol to meet with lawmakers and education leaders, took a congressman on a tour of area and held sign wavings at the school’s new site.

Almost 13 years later, the state Department of Education is finishing up the first few classrooms for Kulanihakoi High School and had asked the county for permission to open the doors for an initial small group of freshmen on Wednesday.

But officials announced Friday that the school is still not ready due to safety concerns, including the need to find a way for students to safely cross a busy four-lane highway.

“We are at a very important juncture on this,” Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said in a statement issued by DOE.

A photo of Kihei Community Association members speaking with U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele about a proposal to build a paved path underneath Piilani Highway.
Members of Kihei Community Association, including Andrew Beerer, spoke with then-U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele last year about a proposal to build a paved path underneath Piilani Highway leading to the new high school. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

The new mayor said the state and county must work together to address “critical and necessary requirements” before Kulanihakoi High School can open.

“I’m certain no agency, department, community leader and parent has ever wavered from the need for student safety first and foremost,” Bissen said. “The County will not be issuing a temporary certificate of occupancy at this time and will be working very closely with the Department of Education to systematically get through the required steps.”

Costly Construction

The DOE has called it a “state-of-the-art,” $120 million campus, but a review of spending data shows the DOE has so far put about $200 million into construction contracts. DOE records show it also plans to ask for another $125 million in the years to come. The agency did not respond to a request for an interview.

And so Beerer and others will have to keep waiting. He remains thankful the long-awaited school is getting close to opening, even though his own children won’t make it. His son is now in college and his daughter is finishing her senior year at Maui High. But he’s also concerned that the campus still isn’t really ready to welcome students.

It’s an active construction zone. It’s also missing some major features: like a sign, landscaping, athletic fields, and, most importantly, a protected pedestrian crossing so that students can cross the highway to get to the school. By law, the DOE should have that crossing built before the school opened its doors.

“I understand there’s still multiple phases,” Beerer said. “But this doesn’t look good if this is what $200 million gets you.”

Kulanihakoi High will continue to operate at its temporary location at Lokelani Intermediate School until further notice, the DOE said in its release, and construction work on the Kulanihakoi site will continue to proceed.

In a news release earlier this month, the DOE said it was hoping to open the new Kulanihakoi High School campus on Wednesday. Courtesy: Hawaii DOE

The DOE had hoped the county would OK a temporary workaround: paying for a shuttle to bring kids to campus who otherwise would’ve walked and hiring a crossing guard to staff a $16 million roundabout the DOE built in front of the school. In the Jan. 9 release, the agency said it was still “committed” to building a separate pedestrian crossing at some point in the future, but construction might take three to five years.

“The DOE mishandled the situation at Kulanihakoi High by agreeing to build a grade separated pedestrian crossing … but failing to plan for one,” Cheri Nakamura of the He’e Coalition, a public education advocacy group, said in a statement. “The superintendent should acknowledge that mis-steps by DOE occurred. He should commit to setting an example and do what is pono — comply with the law and build a (pedestrian crossing) that supports safe access before opening the school.”

The situation has put Maui’s new mayor and planning director in a tough position.

On one hand, some community members desperately want the long-awaited school open. Currently, South Maui students who attend public school have to endure frequent bumper-to-bumper traffic and travel miles away to Central Maui.

At the same time, many Kihei residents, elected officials and education advocates want the county to hold firm and force the DOE to follow through with the 2013 order after years of broken promises.

“The biggest issue is a lack of accountability; it appears that the DOE answers to absolutely no one,” said Tina Wildberger, South Maui’s former state representative who for years advocated for funding for the DOE to build a pedestrian crossing.

A photograph of Kihei Community Association members, U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele and Council member Kelly King walking to a gulch under Piilani Highway, where community members say a path could be built so students can safely cross under the busy thoroughfare.
Kihei Community Association members, then-U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele and then-council member Kelly King toured a gulch under Piilani Highway, where community members say a path could be built so students can safely cross under the busy thoroughfare. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Wildberger said she fought for funding for the project and helped support the community members who advocated for a pedestrian crossing, including those who ended up hiring their own traffic consultants to sketch out what it might ideally look like.

But over the years, she said, she watched the DOE go back on its word and stonewall South Maui residents who wanted information. In her view, the controversy over Kulanihakoi High School is just one example of the broader dysfunction within the agency responsible for educating Hawaii’s children.

“Our taxpayers deserve better,” Wildberger said. “We’re not paying our teachers, but we’re obviously giving billions to the DOE for them to mismanage.”

‘Really Screwed Up’

The DOE’s announcement that it was anticipating to open the campus Wednesday came a month after the county’s former planning director wrote that the offer to shuttle students and hire a crossing guard wasn’t enough to justify her department signing off on permission to open.

In the letter, Michele McLean said she wouldn’t grant permission unless state land use regulators or the Maui County Council agreed to change the zoning laws that allowed the school to be built in the first place — the same rules that dictated that a crossing be built.

She also detailed how DOE officials broke promises over the years. In early 2020, for example, when the DOE went to the county for building permits, it told the county that “the design of the pedestrian overpass has already been started,” and attached a timeline that showed an overpass being constructed in 2022 and 2023. A month later, the DOE wrote to the county again, reiterating its “commitment to constructing the pedestrian overpass” and promising that it’d be “ready for use when the high school opens for students.”

By 2021, the DOE appeared to abandon that plan. Instead, it began an arduous process to ask the Hawaii Land Use Commission, the state’s zoning authority, to change the 2013 order and allow the DOE to open the school without a crossing for pedestrians.

The DOE wanted to spend $16 million on a roundabout, which the agency, with the help of Hawaii Department of Transportation officials, argued would slow traffic on the highway and be safe enough for a small group of students to cross while the rest of the school was built out. Transportation officials also argued that students wouldn’t hassle with going out of their way to use a pedestrian bridge and that building an underpass in the area favored by some community members could cost anywhere from $25 million to $50 million.

The situation came to a boiling point in October 2021, when during a four-hour long meeting, state regulators decided against granting the DOE’s request. Maui County officials had told them that the DOT was misrepresenting studies to support the roundabout; one of them, for example, was a 20-year-old study from Texas that could be argued to show the opposite, that a separate pedestrian crossing was more suitable in areas near schools.

The DOE has said the new school is designed to accommodate 1,600 students. Courtesy: Hawaii DOE

Meanwhile, one land use commissioner questioned if the DOE had “misled” Maui County to get building permits by saying it was designing an overpass, when no such thing came to fruition. Another commissioner said the situation was “really screwed up.”

And before voting to deny the DOE’s request, Commissioner Dan Giovanni said, “As an engineer, I have no trust in what the DOE is recommending,”

‘We Need Both’

In the summer of 2022, the DOE announced it was finally launching another study — this time with more focus on gathering community input — to decide whether to build an overpass or an underpass and where it should go.

According to its September presentation, estimates for the cost of underpasses and overpasses near the school ranged from $10.8 million — less than the cost of the $16 million roundabout — to a maximum of $30.5 million.

The alternative crossing possibilities presented by the DOE to community members in Sept. 2022. Screenshot/DOE presentation

Beerer understands why the DOE built the roundabout — a four-way lighted intersection in front of the school would’ve never worked on the bustling four-lane highway. At the same time, there needed to be a way to slow down traffic. The entrance to school sits at the bottom of a slight slope, and it wasn’t unusual that cars would speed there at 60 miles per hour.

“Simply put, the roundabout is a traffic solution. The grade separated crossing is a pedestrian solution,” Beerer said. “And we need both.”

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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