Proceeds from compost sales to the public are kept by the partner schools.

When the Department of Education shut down Kainalu Elementary School’s composting program in February, it also uncovered record keeping it thought was fishy.

The Kailua school’s composting program, run by Windward Zero Waste School Hui, was shuttered indefinitely after neighbors said their properties were being sullied by odors and dust they say wafted onto their properties during eastward winds.

Now the DOE is also looking into “inconsistent record keeping for cash transactions,” according to a department spokesperson.

The piles of compost at Kainalu Elementary were moved in response to the neighbor’s complaints, but the Department of Education has shuttered the operation too. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Mindy Jaffe has been composting with the school since 2017, which until February processed about 200 pounds of food waste from approximately 250 daily meals.

The compost was used on the school grounds and garden or sold to the community, with all cash going into the school’s coffers. But the hui has no records of those cash transactions that the school has kept, according to co-founder and coordinator Jaffe.

“I’ve been handing over money for 18 years to school offices and nobody said ‘show us your invoices’,” Jaffe said in an interview.

When the compost was sold to the public, Jaffe said she handed an envelope of cash to the school’s administrative services assistant or accountant.

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The hui’s five partner schools — which composted almost 63 tons of waste last year — keep 100% of the proceeds from compost sales.

The derelict compost piles represented about $15,000 in potential proceeds, Jaffe says.

The organization keeps detailed records of its school’s composting activities and kept accounts when required as it was during previous work funded by the City and County of Honolulu.

“I can keep records if they tell me what they need,” Jaffe said. “But nobody asked.”

Kainalu Elementary Principal Kim Anthony-Maeda said in a statement that the program had become a valuable part of the school and that it was committed to finding a resolution, so it can continue running the educational component. 

The hui has struggled to make ends meet — it almost went under last year due to a lack of funding.

Oahu Resource Conservation & Development Council acts as the Windward Zero Waste School Hui’s fiscal sponsor, administering its grants and financial matters.

Oahu RC&D Executive Director Dave Elliott says the hui’s “spectacular” and tireless work simultaneously diverting waste and educating deserves support, and that it’s an example for other nonprofits.

In 2020, the hui received a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency award for its waste work with the school community.

“It actually works. It’s not a concept,” Elliott said in an interview.

‘We’re Not Against Recycling’

The DOE shut the operation down indefinitely Feb. 1 after concerns from residents of four of the school’s neighboring properties were elevated through the ranks of the Kailua Neighborhood Board and onto the desks of government representatives and the DOE.

At a neighborhood board meeting in January, one spoke of algal blooms in their pool and others spoke of issues that came with the apparent proliferation of dust. 

The property owners, ranging in age from their 60s to their 80s, say their health issues – COPD, asthma and diabetes – were aggravated by the dust generated by the process. 

Dorothy Myrdal, who has lived in Hawaii for 50 years, attributes the dust to the trade winds that blow straight through the school and onto her property. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Another neighbor, Dorothy Myrdal, had issues with the level of communication from the school, along with the idea the piles might devalue her property. 

“We’re not against recycling, we’re for it,” Myrdal said in an interview. “But basically they put that behind us without asking if that’s OK.” 

Myrdal says she doesn’t believe that there was an environmental assessment prior to establishing the site, meaning there was not enough consideration of the trade winds that could blow debris toward her and her neighbors.

Windward Zero Waste School Hui was a key lobbyist for Act 207, which launched a pilot program for school composting operations in 2018.

The 2018 law called for DOE to develop regulations with the Department of Health, as part of a suite of incentives to expand composting statewide, which Kailua Neighborhood Board member Gary Weller still has concerns with.

Weller, who worked in the recycling industry, says the health implications from processing compost are not trivial.

In October 2019, DOE staff visited the school after early complaints, which led to piles being moved about 80 yards from the property line the following month.

Myrdal says after the piles were moved her house was covered in dust.

As soon as two piles appeared in the original location in February, the operation was shuttered.

Jaffe is still doubtful about the neighbor’s claims.

“I can’t imagine that was happening but I’m not there 24-7,” said Jaffe. “Everything is under a tarp and everything is wet. Composting is very heavy and wet.”

The school did test other sites before placing it along the eastern property line but there were no viable alternatives. It also offered to test the dust particles, on its own dime, but Jaffe says the pool-owning neighbor refused.

A woman in a blue polo points at a poster on the ground. The poster shows the process of composting and resource recovery at one school.
Mindy Jaffe says she’s eager to resolve the problem and revive the dried out compost piles. (Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2019)

Now that it’s been more than two months since DOE stopped composting operations, Jaffe says the untended piles will be dustier, smellier and more of a public nuisance than they ever could have been.

Meanwhile the students now have to throw their food waste into the trash.

“The parents are upset that we’re not up and running. The kids are crying. Instead of being zero heroes, they’re now eco villains,” Jaffe said in an interview. “We teach them that you’re supposed to separate your food waste and compost it.”

Rep. Natalia Hussey-Burdick of Kailua says DOE is coordinating a meeting in the coming weeks with Jaffe, though it has yet to be scheduled.

Jaffe says she’s eager to resolve the problem and revive the dried-out compost piles and keep educating the children on composting.

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Stupski Foundation, Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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