Frustrated by the Hawaii Department of Education's delays in completing capital improvements, state lawmakers hope a measure creating a school facilities agency will speed up the projects.
The proposed school facilities agency is part of a legislative package negotiated by Gov. David Ige and House and Senate leaders.
The agency would be in charge of all development, planning and construction related to capital improvement projects on public school properties.
“Legislators have been dissatisfied with how slow things move,” said state Sen. Michelle Kidani, who sponsored the measure and chairs the Senate education committee.
“We’ve been told many times by the educators that they’re not in the construction industry. That was sometimes the excuse for the delays and projects," she said. Lawmakers decided to "take something like this away, out of the Department of Education . . . and let someone else focus on the building of schools.”
The agency’s projects would be exempt from all county ordinances except building codes. The agency would also not be required to follow state requirements on environmental impact statements, public procurement and historic preservation laws.
Kidani explained that the way srate procurement laws work, contractors know how much is budgeted for a project.
“Of course, when contractors bid, that’s the price that [they] see. And then we will see a lot of change orders, etc. That brings the cost up,” Kidani said.
The exemptions are meant to help speed the process along, Kidani said. The school facilities agency would still need to adopt similar, but less rigid rules.
“[There] would still have to have some kind of oversight. I'm not saying that they should go and put a building on a landfill or something like that,” she said. “I have been here 12 years and have been appalled at how long it takes us to get things done at the cost of doing business.”
The agency would have its own seven-member board to help make decisions on the projects. The members would consist of the superintendent of education, or a designee, a member of the Board of Education and five people appointed by the governor. They would not be paid for serving on the panel.
The Board of Education, however, has concerns about parts of the measure.
“We weren’t fully prepared for this. We weren’t included in the discussion,” said Board Chair Catherine Payne. She questioned how the new agency would work with the BOE.
“In this legislation, there is a lot of things that are unclear. If they’re not clarified ahead of time in the legislation, it could affect the work that we are doing as a board,” she said.
Asked if the agency would be obligated to follow the Board of Education’s past decisions, Kidani said no.
“It’s something that the agency would decide for themselves,” she said.
Leasing DOE property to generate revenue is one of Kidani’s priorities. She championed a pilot program passed in 2013 to lease public school land; it was renewed last year.
Kidani said the school facilities measure aims to take advantage of DOE’s underutilized property, such as the now closed Queen Liliuokalani Elementary School on Waialae Avenue. DOE now uses it for offices.
“We also have, I think, three elementary schools in the Waikiki area, prime real estate, all of them underutilized,” Kidani said. “We should consider consolidating into two or maybe even one, depending on what the numbers turn out to be.”
Kidani said the revenue DOE would generate from property lease agreements is not meant to discourage the department from asking the state Legislature to appropriate funds for projects. The DOE takes up the second largest portion of the state budget after the state Department of Human Services.
“Hopefully for teachers, too, they will always have that pocket of money that they can go to for things they need,” she said. “I'm not saying it's going to have to pay for everything the DOE needs. I don't see that happening.”
In January, the Board of Education voted not to redevelop Queen Kaahumanu Elementary School on Kinau Street for commercial use.
Under that plan, the elementary school students would have been moved to McKinley High School and the property would have been fully commercialized.
Albert Gray, a father of a child who attends Queen Kaahumanu Elementary School, testified at a hearing on the proposed development.
“We don’t need to take this school, just because it’s a high-profitable area for commercialization, and move it somewhere that these parents, these grandmas and grandpas aren’t going to be able to walk their kids to school,” he said.
The school facilities agency measure awaits a full vote in the Senate.