Hawaii public schools’ repair backlog chopped 50 percent
By Loren Moreno
A backlog of repair and maintenance work at Hawai'i's public schools that at one point soared to nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars has been cut by half and stands today at one of its lowest points in the last 10 years.
Education officials say the substantial improvement is the result of a classroom renovation program initiated by the state Legislature shortly after the terrorist attacks of 2001.
The backlog worsened in two of the last three years before improving again in 2009. And education officials expect to see evidence of even more progress come fall, when the state Department of Education recalculates all of its outstanding work and new projects.
Currently standing at $347 million, the repair and maintenance backlog has declined by 52 percent since 2001, when the list of leaky roofs, needed repainting, busted air-conditioning systems, faulty electrical systems and term- ite infestations peaked at $720 million across 258 school campuses.
"We get on average $70 (million) to $75 million (in) new projects that come on the backlog every year — roofs we have to replace, a constant stream of work — and depending on how much we are funded, that determines what we can get rid of," said Duane Kashiwai, public works manager for the DOE's facilities branch.
Kashiwai predicts a noticeable drop in the backlog in September, when the list is recalculated.
"Last year there was about $69 million worth in new projects, but we got $144 million last year. You'll see a difference," he said.
And the state Legislature appropriated $30 million this session on top of the $144 million that lawmakers appropriated last year for repair and maintenance projects.
But already, the pace of repairs has been reduced.
"The reason the decline in the backlog has slowed in recent years is that the decline in state revenues has meant less funds to attack the backlog," said Randy Moore, assistant superintendent of school facilities and support services.
The perennial backlog of repair and maintenance projects has been, for years, one of the biggest problems facing Hawai'i's public schools.
And despite all the improvement, plenty of work remains to be done.
DOE officials say they have been tackling the most pressing repairs with more deliberate speed than in the past, but many campuses still wait years for fixes on such things as cracked walls, termite infestations and other projects to be funded.
Farrington High School, for instance, is awaiting nearly $9 million in renovation work, including some $2.5 million in classroom modernization. Principal Catherine Payne said aging facilities can detract from instruction.
"The biggest problems are infrastructure problems, and they will eventually be addressed, but it takes time and a lot of money," Payne said.
Payne said the school still has a lot of original plumbing and wiring from when it opened back in 1939. Custodians frequently call in plumbers to deal with drainage problems that the school cannot address on its own.
The school has other problems in the classrooms themselves. Because of the school's location near the freeway, Payne said classroom walls and floors often become covered in soot. Some windows are boarded up because they no longer open and close. Roofs leak. Air conditioners are beyond repair.
"These are all projects on the list of things to be done. We have millions of dollars in needs, and so much less than that is available," Payne said.
DOE contractors recently completed about $1.4 million in maintenance work, including replacement of water lines and air-conditioning chilling units.
A decadelong classroom renovation program launch- ed in 2001 has poured an estimated $300 million into an effort to renovate about 200 of the state's oldest schools.
The DOE is wrapping up work on the remaining 27 schools in need of classroom renovations, which include modernizing light fixtures, reflooring, adding new doors and cabinets, replacing old chalkboards with whiteboards, and replacing ceiling tile.
The project has been stop-and-go for years because of funding problems.
For instance, in 2005, the Legislature approved $160 million to pay for classroom renovations at 96 schools across the state, in what was expected to complete a six-year effort to renovate classrooms statewide.
Gov. Linda Lingle initially released only about $40 million of that money. Because of the slowing economy, and the need to preserve cash in the state's general fund, the remaining $120 million was not released. The remainder of the money was released a year later as bond funding, but the delay meant schools continued to teach using antiquated chalkboards or in less-than-ideal classroom environments.
Classroom renovations at Kamiloiki Elementary School were completed in February, and teachers there say the facelift has been uplifting for staff and students.
Terrie Kamo, curriculum coordinator at the school, said before the work was done, classroom walls were peeling, carpets were fraying and full of stains, and teachers were using chalkboards that they had converted to dry erase boards using white boards bought at City Mill.
"Everybody was making-do with what we had," said Kamo, who has been at the school for 10 years. "It was really due for a renovation," she said.
With new white boards in the classrooms, new flooring and fresh paint, Kamo said she feels like the school has undergone a renewal.
The renovations began in September and went room-by-room, pulling out old cabinet doors and replacing dusty chalkboards.
Acting principal Susan Okano said the work was long overdue.
"It looks like a new school now. Everyone feels so uplifted by it," Okano said.
In March, the Lingle administration released some $7.8 million for ongoing classroom renovations at Kaimukī High School, Lunalilo Elementary School and the Hawai'i School for the Deaf and the Blind. Work at those schools had been put on hold in 2007 because of budget constraints.
Dean Nakamoto, principal at Lunalilo Elementary, said the work is welcome at the 87-year-old campus. He said classrooms, while well-maintained, definitely need updating and general sprucing up.
"I have to say that in spite of (the campus's) age, it's in nice condition. Like anything else with normal wear and tear, it needs to be updated and refreshed," Nakamoto said.