Our Schools: Has Anything Changed?

In May 2001, we published "The Death of Public School," taking the state Department of Education to task for failing to do its job. It's been five years—has public education gotten any better?


Published:

(page 4 of 5)

What About All Those Run-Down Buildings?

One of the most illustrative (if not depressing) examples of how tough it is to fix anything in our government-run school system is the bureaucratic process for construction and repair. The average age of the DOE's 270-plus schools—comprising more than 4,000 buildings—is 59 years old. Not surprisingly, there's a lot of work to be done on them.

Our 2001 story "The Death of Public School" featured photos of several deteriorating schools—dilapidated buildings, leaky roofs, broken windows. We talked about how Waianae High waited 25 years to get a cafeteria, how Maili Elementary students suffered with heat, dust, flies and odors before finally getting air conditioners.

Back in May 2001, the DOE's backlog of repair and maintenance projects totaled about $641 million. Today, it's estimated at $525 million.

Another goal of Act 51 is to make it easier to fix a school. Prior to the law's creation, even DOE-related repairs were handled by the Department of Accounting and General Services (DAGS).

Last year, current Hawaii Business Roundtable chairman David Carey, the president and CEO of Outrigger Enterprises, told HONOLULU Magazine: "In one of the meetings with DAGS and the DOE, we had them explain, soup-to-nuts, the actual process to get a project done. If a project went really, really well, it took three years. We saw what all the steps were, where all the paperwork went and the business guys in the room, their eyes went like this [opens eyes wide]: Oh my god, I can't believe that's what we have allowed to evolve in our state systems."

Even after Act 51, getting the state to fund, plan and complete a project is still so complicated that, after we reviewed three related handouts and a flowchart provided by Moore, we were still fuzzy on the process.

Projects happen in three major phases: planning, designing and construction. Believe it or not, the state Legislature must approve funding for each project at every one of these phases.

Schools aren't in charge—lawmakers are. Here's where the process gets even trickier. Say a legislator has his own pet project—maybe a school in his district really wants a new band room, but it's not one of the projects submitted for Legislative approval. That legislator can, and often will, insert his project into the bill, bumping down other DOE-selected projects in priority.

"As a representative, say I'm fighting for a project in my community and I have more power than others in the Legislature, it comes at the expense of those who don't," says Finnegan. "For instance, I have a school in my district, and it needs an elevator, because it has a lot of handicapped students. In a system you can trust, you know you'll eventually get that elevator. In our system, your project can get bumped down, and not based on need or anything like that. That's unfair."

But even once those projects clear the Legislative approval process, they're still not guaranteed the money. That money must then be released by the governor, who usually doesn't approve funding for all of those projects. That's because she must consider how much the Department of Budget and Finance says the state can actually afford to finance.

f, at any one of these phases, a project is rejected, it automatically- goes back into the schools' capital- improvements backlog. Meanwhile, projects that get the green light must still work their way through the state's lengthy procurement process before construction can begin.

I can count on one hand how many people have been asked to leave or terminated in the Honolulu district because of their inability to teach over the last five years.
— Gerald Teramae, principal

If all goes well, a minor project, such as installing a new toilet, could be completed in eight months, while a major project, such as re-roofing a building, could take up to 22 months. Construction of new facilities—a new building or an entirely new school—typically takes two to four years.

To be fair, this isn't just how buildings on our DOE school campuses are built and fixed. The process applies to all of the departments in our state government. We just happen to notice broken toilets, doors and windows faster when our kids have to use them.

Apparently, this process is so perplexing that even our government officials can't agree on how much money is being spent on school projects. Earlier this year, Lingle and Republican lawmakers got into a public squabble with the DOE and Democratic lawmakers when she refused to release $213 million for school repair and maintenance. Republicans argued that the DOE had yet to spend money from earlier legislative appropriations; the Democrats backed the DOE's claim that all of the money released had already been spent or tied to specific projects.

All while students at Kalaheo High School continued to put up with run-down restrooms, and students at Farrington endured another week with a hole in one their classroom ceilings.

Under Act 51, the "delinking" of DAGS and the DOE has cut out one step in this unwieldy process, at least on Oahu. Last year, about 200 Oahu DAGS employees transferred to the DOE and already, principals are seeing faster responses to their schools' smaller repair and maintenance requests—the ones that don't require Legislative approval.

Act 51 aims to update other aspects of how the DOE does business—upgrading its antiquated technology systems and creating a new CFO position in the department to oversee its budget, accounting and procurement. The fact that the DOE hired Randy Moore, a longtime business executive and former CEO of Kaneohe Ranch, is another move in that direction.

"Changing public education is going to be an evolution, not a revolution—somewhat structural, somewhat cultural," says Don Horner, president and CEO of First Hawaiian Bank, who served as chairman of the Hawaii Business Roundtable last year. "There's a variety of system constraints. The HR side alone—you have 20,000 employees on 3x5 index cards. There are systems that need to be implemented."

Despite these improvements, there are other signs that the bureaucracy is still alive and well in our government-run school system, still resistant to change as it was when we analyzed it in 2001.

Job protection is still built in all the way to the top, thanks to the representation of Hawaii's powerful public-worker unions—the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the United Public Workers.

Teachers' salaries are still determined by how long they work in the system, as opposed to the results they deliver. Underperforming teachers can't be replaced by principals, even at schools that are restructuring under NCLB.

"If I had a teacher who's hurting kids by not teaching them to their full ability, I'd like to have that authority to say, 'I need to let you go,'" says Gerald Teramae, principal at Jarrett Middle School. "Right now, it might take one, two, even three years from now before anything happens. I'm not a patient person, and I cannot sacrifice those kids for those years till I eventually get that teacher out. I can count on one hand how many people have been asked to leave or terminated in the Honolulu district because of their inability to teach over the last five years."

Hawaii still struggles with its chronic teacher shortage in the public schools. But even that hasn't been enough incentive for the Hawaii Teachers Standards Board to lift its protections against new teachers trying to enter the system.

Right now, Hawaii is struggling to meet an NCLB requirement that all secondary teachers be "highly qualified" in the subjects they teach, meaning that have a college degree in that area or its near equivalent.

t the same time, the Hawaii Teachers Standards Board discourages potentially highly qualified teachers from applying to the DOE by requiring them to jump through hoops to get a state teaching license. More often than not, experienced teachers, even those licensed in other states, must still go through a "state-approved teaching certification program" and a battery of tests before the state of Hawaii considers them "certified."

What we need are qualified teachers in the classroom," Lingle says. "Let people who have a degree, gone through a course of study, don't have a teaching certificate but, at a minimum, know their subject, into the classroom. If your goal is highly qualified teachers, then your actions should match that."

MOST DECLINING
Here we identify the single biggest decline made within each of the DOE's four levels of schools—elementary, middle, high and multilevel.
DISTRICT NO. SPOTS
FELL
GRADE IN
2004
GRADE THIS
YEAR
Red Hill Elementary CENTRAL 77 B C
Kapolei Middle LEEWARD 69 C D
Baldwin High MAUI 98 B- C-
Kalanianaole Elementary
& Intermediate
HAWAII 34 D+ D-

*We compared only schools that provided complete scores—teacher, parent and student surveys as well as test results—in both 2004 and 2005.


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