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Hawaii Legislators To Tackle School Safety Issues From Broken Fire Alarms To Evacuation Plans | #schoolsaftey


The Maui fires loom over this year’s Legislature, but longstanding problems also need to be addressed, including school bus shortages and teacher retention.

The recovery of Maui schools and students and expansion of fire prevention efforts on campuses statewide will be a top priority for the 2024 legislative session that begins next week.

Lawmakers also will grapple with educational problems carried over from previous years such as improving school transportation, repairing aging school facilities and reversing students’ learning loss from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rep. Amy Perruso said she’s worried about the Legislature’s ability to adequately fund the efforts as the state prepares to spend approximately $500 million on helping Maui rebound from devastating Aug. 8 fires.

“If we were going to have money adequately funding public education, it should have happened last session,” Perruso said, pointing to the state’s $2 billion budget surplus in 2023.

Lahaina’s King Kamehameha III Elementary school was destroyed in the Aug. 8 fire. Other schools survived the flames and have welcomed back students. But concerns remain high over environmental dangers as well as the need for evacuation plans in case of future disasters. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Lessons From Maui

West Maui students are back in class after a deadly fire that destroyed much of the historic town of Lahaina, including an elementary school. But many families are still displaced and concerns are high over the environmental safety and air quality on surviving campuses.

House Education Committee Chair Justin Woodson, who co-led a working group on schools, said many community members also have raised concerns that schools statewide are unprepared to face major emergencies, from active shooters to wildfires.

In a November House briefing, the Department of Education said it had evacuation plans for Lahaina schools in the case of another fire, but it lacked buses that could readily transport students off campus. For example, at Lahainaluna High School, students would need to leave campus by foot or use their personal vehicles to evacuate, said deputy superintendent Curt Otaguro.

Woodson said the working group is developing a proposal that would require the DOE to ensure every school has adequate emergency action plans in place that would detail responses to tsunamis, fires and other events. The bill would also require the department to make the plans publicly available so legislators and families could provide feedback, Woodson added. 

House Education Committee Chair Justin Woodson, right, co-led the House Working Group on Schools, which released its recommendations on preparing schools for future disasters last month. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Hawaii schools also have faced years-long delays in fixing broken fire alarm systems. In November, DOE estimated that 28 systems were in need of repair, although the department was unable to provide a timeline for when these alarms would be fixed.

Following a successful bill from last year requiring the DOE to provide a list of broken fire alarm systems across the state, Rep. Jeanne Kapela plans on introducing another bill that would appropriate $25 million toward completing these repairs. 

“This should be a no-brainer for keeping students safe, especially after the Maui wildfires,” Kapela said.

Solving Bus Driver Shortages

Two weeks before the start of the school year, the DOE announced the suspension and cancellation of bus routes to 14 schools on Oahu and Kauai. Correction: An earlier version of this story said 14 bus routes were canceled.

The department encouraged students to take the city bus or Skyline rail to school, but Rep. Trish La Chica said families in her Central Oahu district were still scrambling to find viable transportation options. 

The new vice chair of the House education committee plans to introduce a bill creating standards around how the department will address bus shortages in the future. In particular, La Chica said, she would like the department to offer families more advanced notice the next time bus routes are disrupted since not all students live within walking distance from their schools. 

“Two weeks right before school starts is just unacceptable,” La Chica said. 

A bus of elementary school students celebrate their return to studying in Lahaina Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. Princess Nahienaena Elementary School opened their campus for King Kamehameha III Elementary School to place temporary classrooms. The schools have been closed since the Aug. 8 fire and studying at other schools in Maui. King Kamehameha III Elementary School was destroyed in the blaze. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)A bus of elementary school students celebrate their return to studying in Lahaina Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. Princess Nahienaena Elementary School opened their campus for King Kamehameha III Elementary School to place temporary classrooms. The schools have been closed since the Aug. 8 fire and studying at other schools in Maui. King Kamehameha III Elementary School was destroyed in the blaze. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Leading up to the 2023-24 school year, the Department of Education canceled and suspended 14 bus routes on Kauai and Oahu. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

School transportation is also top of mind for Kapela, who hopes to appropriate $10 million for addressing the state’s school bus driver shortages. The funding could go toward raising bus driver pay, particularly in rural and hard-to-staff areas of the state. It could also support schools that are using their own budgets to provide additional transportation for students, Kapela said. 

“If we can’t get students to school, it’s a failure of the state,” Kapela said. 

Preparing A Future Workforce

Legislators and advocates also will seek ways to recruit and retain more educators as the state has long suffered from a dearth of teachers.  

When new teachers come to Hawaii, one of the greatest challenges they face is finding housing, said Sen. Tim Richards. This session, Richards added, he’s prioritizing creating more affordable housing for teachers. 

The Big Island already has some teacher housing available in rural areas, but Richards said he would like to expand these offerings, particularly at schools like Kohala High and Waimea Elementary that have open land surrounding their campuses. 

When it comes to staffing preschool and child care centers across the state, Deborah Zysman said more investment is crucial. Zysman, executive director of Hawaii Children’s Action Network, said the state needs to double its workforce in order to meet its goal of providing preschool to all three and four-year-olds by 2032. 

But, Zysman added, low pay and high turnover rates make it difficult for Hawaii to even stabilize its early learning workforce at this time.

Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke introduced a new initiative to increase the number of preschool seats state-wide last January. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, who has led the Ready Keiki initiative aiming to increase the number of public preschool classrooms in Hawaii, said she plans on supporting a teacher stipend program that would supplement the salaries of preschool and child care providers and help retain Hawaii’s early learning workforce.

Funding For Schools In Flux

But legislators also recognize that the economic consequences of the Maui wildfires could put an additional strain on DOE’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

“Things look pretty grim,” Perruso said, adding that the federal Covid-19 relief funds that have helped address chronic absenteeism and learning loss are set to expire in September. 

In response, Perruso plans to introduce a constitutional amendment that would place a property tax surcharge on non-owner occupied homes valued over $3 million. The resulting revenue would go toward public education, Perruso said, adding that she’s “very hopeful” the proposal will pass through the Legislature and receive voter support. 

With DOE’s recent proposal to lapse $465 million in school facilities funds raising scrutiny and concern in the Legislature, school leaders need to reconsider how they’re prioritizing the construction and completion of its facilities projects, Richards said.

But, he said, schools are still in need of funding that can go toward campus repairs, adding that he’s not happy with the level of maintenance schools in his district are currently receiving. Roughly 20% of Hawaii schools are over a century old, and the department has approximately 180 ongoing school construction projects.

Ultimately, Woodson said, the question remains if the state is providing adequate funding to meet schools’ needs, particularly when it comes to the staffing and basic upkeep of campuses. 

“I think we are not,” Woodson said. 

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.





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