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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 21, 2006

BOE must act to make optimal use of schools

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Don't hold your breath quite yet, but it looks as if the school board is about to get serious about taking stock of its properties and making tough choices about school facilities.

It's been more than a year since the Economic Momentum Commission recommended that the state consolidate public schools, and months since lawmakers floated ideas on the same issue. Now the Department of Education has come to the newly elected school board and kicked up the discussion about school mergers and other efficiency moves.

Although it would be easy to be caustic about how long it's taken to come to this point, it's the holiday season, so let's be nice: It's great that the conversation's going. Let's keep it going, at a brisk pace.

The DOE has always been empowered to study school closures at campuses with low enrollment but has let that chore slide because, frankly, who wants to contemplate shuttering the cherished neighborhood schoolhouse when public schools are already shouldering a heavy burden?

But the hard facts remain:

  • Population centers have moved west, so some of the formerly bustling Honolulu, East and Windward O'ahu schools report declining enrollment, while some Leeward campuses are crowded.

  • The DOE has better uses for taxpayer money than turning empty classrooms into storage closets.

    So the state Board of Education, which has fiscal oversight, really must take up the matter.

    The state Legislature toyed with the notion of appointing an independent panel to recommend which schools close down, something not unlike the Base Realignment and Closure Commission that dealt with military installations. There was discord over how much power this panel would get, so the measure failed.

    The DOE already has the data needed for a sensible analysis and could more easily answer specific questions that an external commission would have to research. As in the case of Wailupe Elementary School, is there a nearby campus that could accommodate the students? Are there charter schools willing to lease the extra space? Or is it smarter to retrofit the space as offices, saving DOE rental costs? Could the property be sold, or is it land actually owned by the county, as is true in some cases?

    The problem isn't access to the information, it's the political will. State schools administrators must demonstrate they can make decisions that, while unpopular, may be necessary to manage taxpayer dollars more wisely. School officials seem to be gearing up to handle this issue, with some members optimistic that progress toward a plan can be made during this legislative session.

    Let's hope so. This is a good project for a school board eager to prove that the buck indeed stops at its desk.