This could mean yet another delay in the decade-long debacle to construct a safe crossing for students.

The ongoing effort to build a protected pedestrian crossing over a bustling highway to Kihei’s new high school has hit yet another barrier: Lawmakers didn’t put money in the state budget this past session to build it. 

Maui County locator map

The long-awaited opening of South Maui’s first public high school, Kulanihakoi High, has already been delayed months because the Department of Education has for years failed to comply with a 2013 order that spelled out what the agency needed to do before opening the doors to the new school.

One of the major requirements was that the DOE build either a protected bridge over Piilani Highway or a walkway under it so students could safely reach the campus mauka of the four-lane road, on the opposite side of most neighborhoods. 

Construction of Kihei High School
A 2022 photograph of the Kulanihakoi High construction site, before the state agencies constructed the roundabout in front of the campus. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022)

The DOE spent more than a decade haggling over whether to build an underpass or overpass, and tried to build a $16 million roundabout instead. But the state’s zoning authority, the Hawaii Land Use Commission, held firm on its 2013 order, and the DOE in February finally announced it had settled on an overpass and promised to seek emergency funding from lawmakers to speed up the project.

But that didn’t happen during the legislative session, which wrapped in early May.

Sen. Angus McKelvey, whose district includes South Maui, said he added $15 million for the project into the Senate’s draft of the state’s spending plan, even though he wasn’t explicitly asked to do so by DOE officials. But the money didn’t make it into the final version of the budget vetted by lawmakers in the House. 

“I’m proud of the fact that the Senate did its job,” McKelvey said. “But it takes two to tango in this business, and without a willing dance partner, you can’t get it up to the governor.”

The DOE is now hoping to open Kulanihakoi High in the fall after Gov. Josh Green announced a plan that would require the school to bus each student to campus until the protected crossing is finished, which could take years. (Screenshot/DOE/2023)

It’s unclear why the $15 million didn’t make it in. Rep. Kyle Yamashita, who represents Upcountry Maui and chairs the House Finance Committee, didn’t respond to messages seeking comment. 

In an email statement, South Maui Rep. Terez Amato said she had been told that the project was “unlikely” to be funded by lawmakers because of its cost. She put in a request for federal funding in February in hopes of getting it covered but was told that wouldn’t be decided on until the fall.

DOE officials had previously said it could take three years to build the pedestrian bridge over Piilani Highway. It’s unknown how much longer the project might take now.

For some Maui residents and elected officials, the funding mishap and lack of clarity on what might happen next is illustrative of broader dysfunction within the agency responsible for educating Hawaii’s future generations.

The DOE is sitting on more than $2 billion in unspent money for major construction projects — more than $1 billion of which will expire if not spent by the summer of 2024, according to the DOE’s website. That cash is often earmarked by lawmakers for specific projects at certain schools and can’t necessarily be shifted around.

A screenshot Friday of a DOE chart shows its unspent funding for major construction projects. The government calls those capital improvement projects, or CIP for short. This doesn’t include the funding given by lawmakers during the most recent legislative session. (Screenshot/DOE/2023)

In an email statement, DOE Deputy Superintendent of Operations Curt Otaguro, who inherited the decade-long Kulanihakoi High crossing fiasco when he was appointed last year, explained that the DOE is responsible for paying for the planning and design of the overpass, but the agency is relying on lawmakers to funnel the millions of dollars in construction costs to the Hawaii Department of Transportation. Then it’ll be up to DOT, which manages the highway, to build it.

The DOE is “hopeful that legislators will consider including the funds in the next budget cycle,” Otaguro said. 

Both DOT and DOE say they are unable to scrape up the cash for construction from any other existing pots of money in the meantime – which is how the DOE built the roundabout on the highway in front of the campus in the first place.

DOE documents show that DOE Facilities Director Edward Ige in 2021 signed off on changing the construction plans to use $16 million of the agency’s existing funds to pay for the roundabout, even though money hadn’t specifically been earmarked by legislators for that purpose. He approved the change a month before the Land Use Commission was scheduled to decide on the DOE’s request for permission to build a roundabout instead of pedestrian crossing – an ask that the LUC later denied, citing the possible threats to children’s safety.

A screenshot of a DOE presentation showing the new roundabout in front of Kulanihakoi High School. (Screenshot/DOE/2023)

The DOE’s mishandling of the project over the years has only caused frustration and division among Maui community members, county leaders and state officials who are tired of waiting for the $200 million campus to open its doors. Currently, students from South Maui who attend public school either have to attend Kulanihakoi’s temporary location at Lokelani Intermediate School in Kihei or travel upwards of 10 miles away to campuses in the central part of the island.

For now, state officials are forging ahead with a new plan to open the school without a protected crossing by bussing each student to campus until the overpass is finished.

The DOE now plans to build an overpass for students to cross the highway to Kulanihakoi High School. (Screenshot/DOE/2023)

In March, Gov. Josh Green announced the state had entered into an agreement with Maui County, which issues the permits that allow new buildings to be occupied. In exchange for the county issuing a temporary permit allowing the school to open to a small group of students, the state is entering into a legal agreement with Maui County to protect the local government from future lawsuits.

Otherwise, there’s a fear that the county could be blamed if it allowed the school to open without the DOE first building the protected pedestrian crossing. It’s not yet known if the DOE will ask the LUC to weigh in on that plan.

In the meantime, some Maui County residents and officials hope that DOE officials and their planners will take advantage of the delay to spend more time working with the community to come up with a pedestrian crossing design that everyone supports. An early sketch had been criticized by community members for looking like a “1930s Soviet Union military cage bridge.” 

“This is the one chance you have to actually prove that things are going to be different, and right the wrongs of the past,” said McKelvey. 

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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

Support public service journalism and your gift will be matched

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and your donation will be matched up to $10,000 thanks to the generosity of the WHH Foundation.

About the Author