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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 11, 2001

School repairs budget almost half billion short

By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer

Downwind from from the roar of the H-1 Freeway, across the dirt patches, high weeds and cracked sidewalks, thousands of students enter these halls of knowledge each day.

Walls are decrepit in Farrington High's science building. But that's minor compared to other maintenance problems on the campus, which needs $12.5 million worth of repairs but has been allocated $775,000.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Along the way to graduation, they learn in science rooms without lab tables and drink from water fountains that sometimes run brown and black because the pipes are so corroded.

In one room, where termite damage has eaten away the cabinets, dim lighting casts a dull yellow pall. A sign on the wall reads, "Anything Is Possible."

This is life at Farrington High School, home of the biggest backlog of repairs and maintenance work in the state's public school system.

With $12.5 million needed for repairs, Farrington's situation is overwhelming.

But the school is hardly unique. It's simply one example of the more than $621 million in backlogged repair projects in Hawai'i's schools.

Statewide, there are 10,349 projects on a waiting list. They range from termite treatment to new classroom furniture. The Department of Accounting and General Services and school administrators say the list of repairs and maintenance amounts to a living document — ever-changing and ever-growing.

The state needs more than $180 million in classroom renovation alone, another $82 million in restroom renovation and $72 million in roofing.

To meet the need, this year's Legislature approved $60 million in spending. In a just-completed special session, an additional $75 million was released.

But school administrators say that falls far short of what is needed to meet classroom needs.

At Farrington, the school has an eight-page list of repairs. This year, three of the school's 158 projects were approved for financing.

Of the $12.5 million needed for repairs at Farrington, the state has committed to pay $775,000.

The money will replace water lines and the grease trap that collects cafeteria waste, but it won't fix the bathroom that's nailed shut, improve the classrooms that have two working electrical outlets, or help the biology classroom that has no running water and no gas lines for Bunsen burners.

"What are we really giving our kids?" said Farrington Vice Principal Myron Monte. "We think it's less."

'There's always dirt'

Melissa Ho'onani Pagba, 17, a senior at Farrington, volunteers to help one of her teachers keep her classroom clean. Without air conditioning, the windows must remain open to the dirt that blows in from the highway and the running track outside.

"There's always dirt," Pagba said. "We manage what we can. Most of the time, it's really hot. It makes everyone sleepy, so that's a problem. Sometimes it's hard to learn."

Randy Hitz, dean of the College of Education at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, said the condition of the public schools sends a signal to students that they aren't valued.

"I've gone to classes where it's so hot that you can't stand it, or where they have four fans going and you can't hear the teacher," Hitz said. "These things have educational implications. It's the general atmosphere. If your work environment is a pleasant place, then your work productivity is high and your attitude about being there is going to be enhanced.

"Children are more vulnerable than adults to these kinds of things. What's the message when a parent walks into a school? That we don't value education, and we're not taking good care of your child."

The DOE's repairs and maintenance backlog soared out of control in the 1990s, fed by falling maintenance allocations from the Legislature during the decade's economic downturn. The problem was aggravated by aging school facilities in need of more and more major repairs.

The general practice has been to repair only the most critical, health-threatening conditions or tackle the least-involved projects to keep facilities operating, department officials say.

"When money is tight, issues such as maintenance are the first to be ignored," said state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Wai'anae, Ma'ili, Makaha, Nanakuli). "I believe we haven't had enough of a commitment to maintaining things. The failure to maintain is an exponential problem. It's no longer a $25,000 to $50,000 fix, it's a $200,000 fix.

"Also, the bulk of the schools were built at the same time. They're all falling apart at the same time."

State Rep. Mark Takai, D-34th (Waimalu, Newton, Waiau, Royal Summit), said older schools have suffered politically because few members of the community turn out to support a school renovation.

"It's always a big community thing when a new school is opened," he said. "It's not a sexy type of project to renovate schools."

But Takai said that could change now that public schools have reached a crisis point. Although the fix will take years, Takai said he believes the Legislature will continue to release more money for repairs and maintenance than its average spending of $22 million from a few years ago.

A national problem

Hawai'i isn't alone in its repair and maintenance problems.

A 1999 report from the National Center for Education Statistics estimated American schools needed $127 billion in repairs and maintenance, at an average cost of $2.2 million per school. The National Education Association nearly tripled that figure a year ago, when it placed a $322 billion price tag on the cost of needed school repairs, construction, and technology.

At the 75-year-old Kaimuki High School, the state will spend $515,000 this year on a campus with a $10.7 million backlog of repairs.

Ann Paulino, the school's vice principal, said the campus shows its age when repairs are done. "This is how it's noticeable: one thing goes wrong, and then we go to fix it and we find 10 other things that have gone wrong behind it," she said.

Schools have tried to get creative —and avoid the state — to solve their facilities problems, Paulino said. Kaimuki is working with its alumni group, which may try to help raise money for a few projects.

At Farrington, one saving grace has been New Hope Christian Fellowship. In exchange for using the school's auditorium for services on the weekend, the church painted, repaired seats, reupholstered, extended the stage and put in new lighting. Before, school administrators were planning to shut the auditorium because they couldn't afford to repair it.

On some campuses, students and teachers have taken the situation into their own hands.

Kahelelani Kaina, 17, a senior, helped paint the doorway to one teacher's room at Farrington with a giant "Aloha" and the handprints of several students' younger brothers and sisters. "We did it on the weekend," she said.

Gerald Javier, a 10th-grade biology teacher, spent weekends and summers building cabinets for his Farrington science room and hooking up suspended televisions to his computer so he could run demonstrations. "It was so bare. I said, 'We've got to do something about it to make it more functional,' " he said.

Next door, teacher David Wong got tired of waiting for the state and did his own plumbing work to open up old water lines in his room for his biology and physical science class experiments.

For years, Farrington art teacher Randy Miyamoto had to scream to be heard over the highway traffic outside. "At the end of the day I couldn't talk," he said. Then six years ago he developed polyps in his throat and had to have surgery. His doctor gave him a choice: teach by passing out handouts or get a microphone.

Miyamoto chose the microphone. He wears it pinned to his shirt and clicks it on when he wants the class to hear him or if he's trying to talk to a student across the room.

His room still has no air conditioning to block the noise. Students have to use a half-shout to be heard.

Paulino said teachers throughout the system have grown used to the problems and work around them.

"It's not a matter of complacency. They've tried to change things. It's almost like a hopeless situation. They've tried. You keep yakking and yakking and nothing gets done," she said. "You look at six pages of requests and only four items get done. It's dismal."

Reach Jennifer Hiller at jhiller@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8084.