After more than a decade of bureaucratic missteps that have left a $245 million Maui public school campus standing unused for far longer than expected, state and county officials have reached an agreement to finally allow Kulanihakoi High School to open to students when the school year starts Aug. 7.
The main holdup has been that while the state Land Use Commission since 2013 has required the school project to include a “grade-separated crossing” —
a pedestrian overpass or underpass — for students to safely cross bustling Piilani Highway, the state Department of Education so far hasn’t built it.
DOE officials have publicly
admitted to mistakes in failing to comply with the commission’s requirement and building a $16 million traffic roundabout first. The commission and the county have cited broken trust in the DOE in their refusal to allow the school
to open up to now.
But in a news conference Thursday at the school, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen announced that following talks between the agencies, the county has granted a temporary permit of occupancy to allow Kulanihakoi to begin operations with access only by vehicles, such as cars and buses, while the DOE continues to work toward building an expected pedestrian overpass. Shuttles will pick up
students who walk to school, a DOE news release said.
“Our county team together with the state agencies and the South Maui community have rallied behind our students, behind their education and their hometown pride, making diligent efforts over the past several months to meet the requirements that would bring us to this day,” Bissen said.
“As we work together to resolve long-standing issues, the safety of our students remains our top priority. Our actions today underscore the need for public safety and allows this $245 million state-of-the-art campus to open with a temporary certificate of occupancy, with an indemnification that we received from the state while the overpass recommendation is being pursued by the DOE through the
A formal agreement was reached between the state and Maui County that indemnifies the county “from liabilities that may arise from any items that are not in compliance with the Land Use Commission’s requirements,” a DOE news release said.
The temporary certificate certifies that “the campus’s buildings are safe for use,” the release said.
Rebecca Hill, a mother of four and organizer of the Kihei Parents Hui, which has held multiple sign-waving demonstrations calling for Kulanihakoi to open, expressed relief Thursday. Her son will be a freshman there in fall 2024. “We are happy that students will finally be able to occupy campus, and hopeful now that the DOE has given an official start date,” she told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “It’s been a really long road.”
Of Kulanihakoi’s inaugural class of 34 students, who attended classes all of their freshman year in 2022 a mile away in cramped portables at Lokelani Intermediate School, about 30 will go to the new campus as sophomores in August, along with a new freshman class of about 90 students, a DOE spokesperson said.
The school will add an
additional freshman class each school year until grades 9 through 12 are fully implemented in school year
2025-26, so the school can gradually hire a full staff for all grade levels, the DOE said.
Teachers will be able to begin moving into classrooms on the 77-acre property starting Aug. 1.
A permanent permit of occupancy will be granted only after the grade-separated crossing is built, Bissen said.
However, no completion date was immediately
available for the expected overpass.
State schools Superintendent Keith Hayashi said
the DOE is committed to continuing work on the grade-separated pedestrian crossing across Piilani Highway. Honolulu-based firm G70 has been contracted to design a pedestrian overpass and expects a completed design in late summer.
“That work is underway and we’ll see it through,” Hayashi said.
But state Transportation Director Ed Sniffen said there is no current funding to build the crossing, and it will have to be sought at the Legislature.
DOE officials have
estimated an overpass to
cost around $10 million to $15 million. Once funding is approved, construction is estimated to take three to five years, the DOE said.
“I think everybody here
is committed to reaching those immediate conditions as soon as possible,” Sniffen said.
Kulanihakoi’s history stretches back to when it was conceived in the early 2000s as a solution to South Maui residents’ long drives to other high schools that were overflowing due to population growth. The DOE petitioned the LUC in 2011 to get the parcel rezoned from agricultural to urban, won approval in 2013 and broke ground in 2016.
Phase I included the drilling of new irrigation wells and site grading at an approximate cost of $46 million, the DOE said, and Phase II for the upper campus was completed in December for about $136 million.
The DOE in 2019 said it planned to welcome Kulanihakoi’s first students in the 2021-22 school year. The opening was pushed to August 2022, then January, then left uncertain until now.
Future phases as funding becomes available are expected to include a gymnasium, track and football field, basketball courts,
tennis courts, additional classroom buildings, softball field, baseball field, soccer field and open play field, the DOE said. At full capacity the campus is designed for 1,600 students.