One millennium. That’s how long it would take at the current rate to rebuild, repair and remold all Hawaii’s ailing public school facilities.

Ray L’Heureux, assistant superintendent for the Office of Facilities and Support Services, told the Board of Education last week that the district could spend its entire annual capital improvement projects budget on just one of the state’s 15 complex areas and still fall far short.

The Department of Education in recent years has asked for some $300 million annually for its CIP budget and usually receives about $200 million, he said.

“There’s 256 campuses, average age 65 years. You can do the math,” L’Heureux said. “It’d be 1,000 years before we addressed every campus. You just can’t sustain that.”

The funding level is expected to remain consistent. The board on Oct. 16 approved the department’s CIP budget recommendation of $305 million for fiscal year 2014 and $315 million for 2015. The request was sent to the governor to be included in his executive budget proposal due later this year to the Legislature.

But that’s not to say school officials have just resigned themselves to a perpetual game of catch-up. They say there’s an innovative plan afoot — part of Gov. Neil Abercrombie‘s New Day initiative — to try to bring Hawaii’s schools into the 21st Century a lot sooner.

Board Chair Don Horner said there are three pieces to building 21st Century schools in Hawaii: one, hiring a consultant to look at the current inventory; two, determining what schools of the future should look like; and three, dealing with the money issue.

“Our brick and mortar is woefully underfunded and old and challenged,” Horner said. “The good news is this board has substantial assets within our communities.”

The chair said he suspects schools can be built for far less than they are now.

“I’m still concerned about quote-unquote a million dollars a classroom. That to me is unconscionable,” Horner said.

L’Heureux, Horner and Wesley Lo, who chairs the board’s Finance and Infrastructure Committee, seemed stoked for the possibilities the effort could yield. But they’ll have to convince the public and other board members, like Nancy Budd and Charlene Cuaresma, who support the noble intent but have concerns over the slowly emerging details.

“If we do nothing, then we stay the same,” L’Heureux said. “We’re going to repair old buildings that just keep getting older.”

The board’s discussion of the department’s strategic approach to building 21st Century schools in Hawaii raised eyebrows with references of a “PR machine” and talk of using the beleaguered Public Land Development Corporation as a mechanism to raise money. The PLDC, which is envisioned to use public-private partnerships to build and upgrade state facilities, has been widely criticized by environmental groups, Native Hawaiians and a number of lawmakers as having too much power. Already some legislators are drafting bills to abolish it in the upcoming session.

L’Heureux said talks earlier this month included plans to hire a real estate assessor and public relations firm to put the word out.

“You have to make sure the messaging is absolutely correct in this concept,” he said.

Using the word “leverage” instead of “monetize,” for instance, when referring to how to make some cash off underutilized school assets is important so the public doesn’t misunderstand the intent, L’Heureux said.

“I’m not anxious at all in this process that it’s going to somehow be a land grab and the money is going to go someplace else to the expense of children in Hawaii. That’s never been a topic of conversation,” Horner said, referring to talks he’s had with the governor and lawmakers. “I’m very optimistic and confident that this is really all about student achievement. Period.”

Budd, the board’s Kauai representative, said she needs convinced.

“It feels like the cart before the horse,” she said. “I would like to have some questions answered before we move forward.”

Budd said she supports leveraging underutilized school facilities but worries about the lack of environmental oversight if the PLDC is the mechanism to do so.

“This is just the concept, an update of the way ahead,” L’Heureux said. “There’s no template yet in terms of what we’re going to do. The community has to be engaged.”

Lo said the PLDC is just “an arrow in our quiver to examine projects.” He added that the PR component is not about going out and selling something to the public, rather how to best engage the community.

Cuaresma, one of the board’s three Oahu appointees, said there needs to be more discussion on using the PLDC or taking action to ensure there’s a provision that ensures all the money leveraged from DOE assets goes back into education.

“There’s a big fear in the community and a big distrust,” she said.

Horner tried to reassure her, but Board member Jim Williams added his doubts to the mix.

“We as the Board of Education control our properties,” Horner said. “So before we’re going to put that asset in play, we’re going to make darn sure that money comes back to public education.”

Williams said he thinks the governor controls school properties, not the board.

He offered a case in point with the Kakaako development. He said a school used to sit on that property, but the governor recently announced plans to build a mixed-use housing complex there.

“We weren’t even told about that project,” Williams said.

Horner said most land is basically owned by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, but the board can control it for educational purposes. For example, the state recently bought some 60 acres on Maui to build a high school and even though it’s on DLNR land, it’s for public education so its use is dictated by the board.

He challenged L’Heureux, as the “new kid on the block” — he just started in his current job three months ago — to ensure the state is being efficient and effective with taxpayer dollars when it comes to construction costs.

L’Heureux said he expects to get more bang for the department’s buck.

“Just like discussing student transportation, food services, facilities maintenance, facilities development, when you’re using our current procurement and contracting model, there are efficiencies that can be found and efficiencies that can be applied,” he said.

Hawaii is 51st in the nation with regards to capital improvement money per student per year, L’Heureux said. He said Hawaii spends on average about $300 per pupil whereas the mainland averages $1,200 to $1,500.

Check out more details from the CIP budget request for the next biennium here:

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