IN THE NEWS:  Capital improvement backlog impacts students’ learning environment

DOE asks for $534 million for schools repairs, heat abatement

Hawaii is last in the nation when it comes to capital improvement repairs.  This is bad for our keiki, this is bad for our schools.

Posted: Oct 22, 2015 5:09 PM HST
Updated: Oct 22, 2015 6:29 PM HST

By Allyson Blair

The Department of Education is asking for $533.5 million to tackle capital improvements projects in the upcoming fiscal year.

The request is $125 million more than what the DOE asked for last year, and includes $30 million for noise and heat abatement.

DOE Chief Financial Officer Amy Kunz said the request for heat abatement will “allow us to work through the prioritized list of projects, to work further down that list and get cooling into our schools.”

She said the heat abatement funds won’t just go to air conditioning, but to other technologies, like painting roofs to drop the temperature or “flushing” schools at night to push out hot air.

Meanwhile, some onlookers say the capital improvements request still won’t tackle all of the backlogged repairs at schools.

“When you consider the amount of buildings that we have and the condition that they’re in, even $500 million is not sufficient,” said Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association and a former social studies teacher at Campbell High School.

He says the condition of the schools has been ignored for so long, buildings are starting to crumble.

“Unfortunately in the past when they asked for this money (from the Legislature) they didn’t get it,” said Rosenlee.

Last year, the DOE asked for just over $406 million for capital improvements, and lawmakers approved about $288 million.

The appropriation pales in comparison to the total in backlogged repairs across the state’s 255 schools—the state puts that figure at $4 billion.

State figures show DOE’s pricetag for backlogged repairs includes a host of big-ticket items, like new schools in growing areas where existing campuses are overcrowded and new classroom buildings.

But it also includes more immediate needs, like air conditioning installation, renovations of classrooms and other areas, and demolition work.

The state has said that the average age of Hawaii schools is 59. More than one-third of schools are over 75 years old.

State Sen. Jill Tokuda, chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the Legislature will need to consider DOE’s request “in relation to all of the needs and priorities that are put forth by the various departments.”

She added, “With a half-billion dollar ask, presenting a priority order both in terms of the lump sum requests and the individual projects will better help lawmakers and the public determine what can be funded given available resources during the coming legislative session.”

Tokuda also said she has visited a number of schools and state facilities, and acknowledges significant infrastructure and repair needs “that must be addressed.”

The Legislature will decide in late spring how much the DOE will receive.

Rosenlee said he hopes lawmakers keep students in mind when they do.

“This is not a sustainable system. We need to lower class size we need to give our students facilities that encourage learning. We need to air condition the room so kids can focus on the teacher instead of the heat,” he said. “This takes investment but this is investment that’s needed for our schools.”