The construction project will likely take years to complete, further delaying the school’s opening.

Education officials promised Thursday to finally move forward with a pedestrian bridge so students can safely cross a bustling highway to South Maui’s new high school, but the campus could still be months or even years away from opening its doors. 

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More than 40 people, including several students attending Kulanihakoi High at its temporary location at a nearby middle school, piled into the Kihei Community Center to hear an update on the long-delayed development. The Hawaii Land Use Commission also questioned Superintendent Keith Hayashi and other Department of Education officials about the latest plan.

In a presentation, the DOE also unveiled the first rough sketches showing what a possible bridge might look like.

Skepticism was high after years of delays during which the education department resisted a 2013 order by the state zoning authority to build a crossing — either an overpass or an underpass — that would allow students to cross Piilani Highway.

The $200 million campus, which will be the first public high school in the area, sits on the mauka side of the busy thoroughfare, the opposite side of most neighborhoods.

Instead of complying with the order, the DOE for years continued to debate whether a crossing was actually needed, commissioned a number of studies on the issue, then spent $16 million on a four-lane roundabout with flashing lights in front of the school. 

Department officials had hoped the roundabout and an offer to bus students to campus would be enough to persuade state and county regulators to open the campus and announced tentative plans to start classes last month.

But Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen held firm. Dan Giovanni, the chair of the Land Use Commission, also reaffirmed Thursday that the school shouldn’t open until the DOE meets the condition set out in the 2013 order geared toward keeping students safe.

“If you want to get the damn thing done, get it done,” Giovanni said.

A screenshot of the DOE’s presentation to the Land Use Commission. (Screenshot/2023)

Until that happens, the campus will sit empty. Meanwhile, the 35 or so freshmen enrolled in Kulanihakoi High will continue attending class at the temporary location at Lokelani Intermediate School.

DOE officials said they chose the overpass because of the results of a recent study that involved gathering community input on the crossing issue. No specific timeframe was given. The officials said they still must solicit residents’ feedback on the design, finalize plans and secure funding for construction.

Last year, state education and transportation officials had warned that the regulators’ requirement that the school must have a crossing could delay the opening another three to five years. DOE officials were urged Thursday to ask Hawaii lawmakers for emergency funding in hopes that might speed up the process.

“I want to apologize to our students for putting them through this,” said DOE Deputy Superintendent Curt Otaguro, who inherited the decade-long debacle when he was appointed to his position last year. 

“If we don’t do our job, people get hurt,” Otaguro added. “If we don’t follow through, we’re wasting time and money – and it’s all our money.”

A screenshot of the DOE’s presentation to the Land Use Commission, showing the roundabout in front of the high school. (Screenshot/2023)

Otaguro was among DOE and DOT officials, including the superintendent, who spent the morning fielding questions from Maui residents and state regulators over the DOE’s mismanagement of the project. 

Tina Wildberger, South Maui’s former state representative, said she’d offered in recent years to request funding for the crossing, but DOE officials never followed up on it. Other members of the Kihei Community Association said the DOE hadn’t been responsive and ignored their attempts to help assemble plans for a protected crossing.

When the DOE unveiled the rough sketch of the pedestrian bridge, Andrew Beerer, a longtime advocate for the new high school, criticized the agency for failing to gather community input on the design and said it looked like a “1930s Soviet Union military cage bridge.” 

“After 10 years of stalling, this is what the DOE presents to us,” Beerer said. 

DOE officials said it was just a rough sketch and promised to work with residents on the final plans. Land use commissioners, however, questioned whether the DOE’s word meant anything.

More than 40 residents packed into the Kihei Community Center for the LUC meeting. (Marina Starleaf Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

In early 2020, for example, when the DOE went to Maui County for building permits to start construction on the school, it told the county that “the design of the pedestrian overpass has already been started.” It also attached a timeline that showed an overpass being constructed in 2022 and 2023. A month later, the DOE wrote to the county again, promising that it would be “ready for use when the high school opens for students.”

A year later, the DOE abandoned that plan. By September 2021, the DOE had approved spending millions of dollars on a roundabout — a decision the agency signed off on a month before the Land Use Commission was scheduled to weigh in on whether it might even consider allowing the DOE to build roundabout instead of pedestrian crossing, according to records obtained by Civil Beat.

“Why should we trust what you’re telling us today after the history of what the record shows?” Commissioner Gary Okuda asked DOE officials.

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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