School repairs to get top priority
By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Government Writer
By Treena Shapiro
The ceiling of one classroom at Farrington High School has a hole so big that students must huddle on one side to avoid being splashed by dripping rain water, said Wendel Dayuha, a 17-year-old senior.
Mary Scott-Lau, mother of an eighth-grader at Kailua Intermediate School, had a terrifying experience a year ago when someone called her to let her know a ceiling had collapsed on a group of science students. Luckily, her son was not among them, she said.
Nancy Cullen said her daughter, a sophomore at Kalaheo High School, has complained that desks need to be replaced and bathrooms repaired so students are better able to concentrate in class. Cullen, the Windward Region Director for the Hawai'i State Parent Teacher Student Association, sees other needs at the schools, but repair and maintenance are high on the list.
Some fixes may be in sight. While exploring ways to use a $574 million budget surplus this Legislative session, elected officials have made addressing the public schools' $525 million repair and maintenance backlog a high priority.
In recent years, the state tried to improve the quality of education by giving more local control to schools, reducing class-size in the early grades, buying textbooks and exploring ways to make funding more equitable.
Now, lawmakers say it is time to focus attention on safety by improving the 268 state-owned campuses that house 181,355 students and more than 50,000 employees.
In addition to addressing health and safety concerns, officials say a better physical environment could boost students' achievement by raising morale and allowing them to complete their lessons in up-to-date science labs and well-maintained sports facilities.
It also will send the message to students that they are valued.
"If restrooms are in bad shape, it just kind of casts a cloud over the whole learning environment," said DOE spokesman Greg Knudsen.
Just how much should be directed at projects such as leaky roofs, broken windows and flaking paint is still up in the air. The DOE wants $160 million to complete classroom renovations at 96 schools, and $100 million for other school building improvements.
In making their case for the extra money in their supplemental budget request, the department has said the classroom renovations would remove several long-awaited projects from the backlog entirely and lessen repair and maintenance expenses in the future.
The governor's executive budget includes $40 million in cash to address immediate minor repairs such as leaky toilets and $23 million for major repair and maintenance projects.
"That won't even make a dent in what we need to do," said schools superintendent Pat Hamamoto in testimony to the legislative money committees earlier this month.
While the DOE deems $40 million too much for minor projects and $23 million too little for the major ones, state Budget and Finance Director Georgina Kawamura said she will not recommend more funding until the department spends the $600 million she estimates it has at its disposal through July 2007.
"No one is saying there isn't a backlog. There are improvements to be made," she said. She added, "There's a lot of money that they have at their fingertips ready to spend and let's see some results of that spending."
Meanwhile, Democrats in the Legislature have proposed dedicating $150 million to tackle the repair and maintenance backlog, as well as to retrofit schools as shelters for natural disasters.
Parents, teachers and students see other needs that need to be addressed.
Chad Nacapuy, a fourth-grade teacher at Solomon Elementary School, said he would like to see more programs targeted at middle learners, rather than just those who have fallen behind or are considered gifted and talented.
Nacapuy said: "What are we doing for the middle kids, who are the bulk of our students?"
Because Solomon serves Army dependents from Schofield Barracks, the school receives federal funds not available to most other schools and therefore is able to keep on top of technology, such as replacing traditional chalk- and white-boards with electronic smart boards. Nacapuy would like to see funding for technology spread more equitably among public schools so other teachers and students can enjoy these advances.
He also would like to see more help for teachers in the classroom, since an effort to reduce class size has yet to make much of a difference.
Cullen, from the PTSA, said teachers need more assistance. "I'd like to see teachers have more clerical support or aides in their classrooms," she said.
Schools need more funding to hire counseling staff, as well, she said, noting that, "Students need to be emotionally ready to learn."
Scott-Lau thinks schools need more money for security personnel. At Kailua Intermediate, she said there are four or five fights a day.
Her work as the executive director for Women in Need frequently brings her onto the Wai'anae and Nanakuli high school campuses, and they could also use more security to help with fighting, graffiti and other vandalism, she said.
In addition, Scott-Lau suggests schools with large low-income populations should reconsider their uniform policies, since some students cannot afford to buy a week's worth of shirts. "They wear the same shirt over and over, and they get big holes in them," she said.
Zachary Sisneros, a senior at Farrington High School, said aesthetic changes at his school, like green grass, are needed.
"There is too much visible dirt," he said.
Reach Treena Shapiro at email@example.com.