BY SAM SLOM – On December 15, I attended and testified at a public meeting regarding possible East Honolulu school closures or consolidation held at Kaiser High School.

The cafeteria was jammed with nearly 500 people-parents, teachers, community residents and young students. They were all there to rally support for their beloved Hawaii Kai public schools: Koko Head Elementary and Kamiloiki Elementary. No one spoke up for closure. Only one DOE executive, Randy Moore, was present to hear the testimony.

Two of my sons attended Kamiloiki. (one was May Day King-not bad for a haole boy!) He has since returned to help in the school’s A-Plus program. Several alumni of both schools spoke up about the value of these schools to them.

The Hawaii public school enrollment has been declining; yet, costs-particularly out of classroom costs-have been rising. The number of classroom teachers has declined. But the average expenditure per public school pupil in Hawaii exceeds $14,000, rivaling some of the top private schools in the state.

Both schools were on the latest list of possible closures or consolidation put out by the Department of Education (DOE). The reason? The Legislature years ago authorized the DOE and Board of Education to have the authority to open or close schools. Public education, like other activities in Hawaii, has been facing a budget squeeze even though the DOE manages to spend more than $2.7 billion annually. Some school enrollment has dipped. The DOE, and the teachers union, HSTA, nevertheless, demand even more money from Hawaii taxpayers. They want  increased taxes. The DOE has said by closing some schools they can save money.

More than a year ago, I attended a similar public meeting in Aina Haina to decide the fate of the iconic Wailupe Valley School. The same scenario: teachers, students and parents all begged to keep their school open. The DOE talked about cost savings and rapidly declining enrolment. (A large portion of the enrollment decline should be attributed to the continual assault on the school and regular calls and rumors of its closing). The DOE was not impressed and did not listen to alternative uses compatible with the school.

The school was finally closed. The community lost an asset and every claim the DOE made about saving money was proven untrue. The building sits empty in disrepair, the victim of vandals, and waits for the landowner, the City & County of Honolulu, to do something with the property. The financial savings? Nothing close to DOE projections.

At Kaiser, there were more than 50 people who testified passionately against the DOE possible action. Facts and figures and common sense were advanced. The young students were quite convincing. But the DOE appears unmoved. In fact, Moore at one point attempted to blame the Legislature for the DOE action. Representatives Gene Ward, Lyla Berg and myself, refuted that argument. This is the DOE at work.

What makes this all the more ludicrous is that both Kamiloiki and Koko Head are among the top 3 public schools in the state. Both excel in the most important academics; reading and math. Both offer extra incentives and are a major part of the Kaiser School Complex. The community supports these schools and enthusiastically embraces them. Koko Head was recently chosen a Blue Ribbon School.

The excellence these schools achieved was not by luck; nor by DOE action. It was the hard work and dedication of the teachers, parents and kids themselves.
The decrease in enrollment could also be explained in several ways but my point was, for decades the DOE called on the taxpayers to reduce the teacher pupil ratio to ensure better education. Now that ratio is definitely reduced and the DOE claims enrollment is too low. Not true. There is more to quality education than just numbers and enrollment. These schools have proven themselves repeatedly.

So why, as so many asked, would the DOE even consider closing or consolidating the very best schools? There was no answer.

And my question: why has the DOE seemed to single out East Honolulu schools for closure? No answer.

The budget estimates given by the DOE for closure and/or consolidation are not accurate or real. So, what is the real motive here?

For more than a decade I have introduced bills annually in the State Senate mandating a financial and managerial audit of the DOE. Nothing has happened.

Maybe its time to hold a hearing on the closure or consolidation of the Department of Education and its bureaucracy, not our successful schools.
What do you think?

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Sen. Sam Slom, R-Hawaii Kai-Diamond Head, is an entrepreneur, small business owner and consulting economist (SMS Consultants); President of Smart Business Hawaii (SBH) and the SBH Entrepreneurial Education Foundation. He graduated from the University of Hawaii-Manoa. Reach him at sbh@lava.net