Maunaloa Could Lose Its School

State says the elementary school is safe for now.

Maunaloa students Kekoa and Taylor wait for their parents after school last week. Like teachers and parents, the children hope their school is not on a consolidation list come December. That would mean long bus rides and another major loss to this already hard hit community.

By Sean Aronson

On the heels of Molokai Ranch closing its operations, the community of Maunaloa is preparing for what could be yet another hardship. If the Hawaii state Board of Education (BOE) approves plans making it easier to consolidate small schools in Hawaii, it could lead to the closure of Maunaloa Elementary School.

The potential change comes as the state faces a projected $1.1 billion deficit by the end of 2011. Lawmakers are turning to the BOE to cut as much as $69 million from its 2009 budget. The Hawaii public school system is already $24 million short this fiscal year.

But community members say they will not go down without a fight.

“We’re just not gonna stand by,” said long time resident and parent John Yates. “We’ll do anything we can to fight this.”

Parents and concerned community members planned a sign-waiving event this past Tuesday to drum up awareness and support.

Maunaloa Elementary School surfaced in an Associated Press article last week as one of a handful of schools the state is considering consolidating to save money.

The state Department of Education (DOE) insists that no such consolidation ‘list’ exists, and that the plan merely gives the state superintendent more control over the decision making process.

The new law would erase some of the bureaucratic obstacles in the consolidation process. Specifically, it would eliminate the mandate of selecting and overseeing a task force to determine the feasibility of closing or consolidating a school in a particular community.

No school in Hawaii has been closed in more than 20 years, in part because of this cumbersome process, according to the Department of Education.

But with large budget shortfalls expected, officials are desperate to find new ways to cut costs, according to DOE spokesperson Sandy Goya.

The prospect of consolidation comes despite Maunaloa students improving dramatically on state tests, having now complied with all targets on the Adequately Yearly Progress for the No Child Left Behind report.

“This is not rewarding the kids for achievement,” said Maunaloa Principal Joe Yamamoto.

Yamamoto took over the once failing elementary school 10 years ago and credits the staff and community for the improvements.

“The personnel should be proud,” he said.

Upon hearing of the possible consolidation, Yamamoto called a staff meeting to inform them of the news. He will be creating a task force to address the issue. Topics to discuss include where the Maunaloa kids would be transferred to and what would happen to his staff.

The next closest school is Kualapu’u Elementary School, but it is a public conversion charter school and does not fall under the state system. Yamamoto said the children would have to be bused 16 miles to Kaunakakai Elementary School.

That would most likely mean less parental involvement and higher transportation costs to teachers and staff, according to Yamamoto.

He said the lack of control is what bothers him most. They have to prepare a budget by December and have doubts about the money actually being allocated.

“It’s frustrating,” said Yamamoto. “It takes away from our priorities, which is the kids.”

According to the measure, which will be voted on December 4 by the BOE, the amendment would streamline the consolidation process while still allowing for public opposition.

It states, “The opportunity for the public to provide input is preserved by the requirement that the Board direct the superintendent to … conduct a public hearing in the affected school community and to provide the Board a summary of the testimony offered at the public hearing.”

Manualoa residents have heard those promises before and are not easily convinced.

In the meantime, teachers and parents are left to ponder the possibilities.

“It worries me a lot,” said Kalani Garces, a 21 year resident of Maunaloa with two kids at the elementary school, “I just got a new house.”

Community members are urged to sign petitions of support for the Maunaloa School at local businesses.

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