Task Force Advocates for Maunaloa School

Last Tuesday, the Maunaloa School Consolidation Task Force unanimously decided to recommend against consolidation of Molokai’s west end elementary school. Task Force members have until June 9 to file a final recommendation document with the Board of Education.

The state has identified Maunaloa as one of a handful of small schools in the state eligible for consolidation.  That means closure of the campus and transferring all students to either Kuapapu`u Elementary or Kaunakakai Elementary.

Maunaloa School has been operating for over 70 years. Currently 54 students are enrolled. While numbers are still in calculation, the task force estimated annual net savings of about $349,000 if consolidation occurred. That’s less than the Department of Education’s (DOE) latest estimate of $650,000, projected on the high end of the possible range. But even so, that’s less than one percent of the DOE’s total budget for the 2009-10 school year — nearly $227 million. Transportation costs alone could reach upwards of $100,000 annually to bus Maunaloa students to the closest school 17 miles away.

Task Force Mana`o
But task force members say the decision should not be made on numbers alone.

“Molokai as an island community would be affected,” said Daniel Espaniola, who grew up in Maunaloa and attended the school, as do his children.

Task force member Poncho Alcon pointed out that public testimony highlighted the fact that many of Maunaloa’s students were struggling in larger schools before attending Maunaloa, where they began to excel.

What would happen to those students if they had to go back? Alcon wondered aloud.

Bill Akutagawa urged his fellow task force members to consider what would happen if the school closes and the community grew. The school might have to re-open, and members agreed it is harder to open a school again once the decision is made to shut it down.

Task force member Karen Holt said that so far, the task force has been looking backward. But Holt suggested looking toward the future as well. The presence of a school in a community can lower crime rates, she added.

“What problems are we preventing that we’ll never know about because there’s a school here?” Holt asked.

“If it came down to consolidation, I’d make sure the students were well taken care of and welcomed,” said Kaunakakai School Principal Janice Espiritu. But she strongly recommended against consolidation.

Kualapu`u School Principal Lydia Trinidad agreed. “For the community itself, Maunaloa School has to stay open,” she said.

Re-invention
But Trinidad said if the school did close, “the kids would be okay.” She added that 10 students from Maunaloa already attend Kualapu`u by choice.

For Trinidad, the outlook isn’t all bleak. She spoke enthusiastically about the process of “re-invention” – the endless possibilities for expansion and improvement of the school. Even if the school closes, she said, that’s not the end.

“It will take energy to re-invent yourself,” explained Trinidad. “The easiest way to re-invent yourself is to actually close down [and start over].”

Maunaloa Principal Joe Yamamoto said the process of possible consolidation has been straining on him, his family and staff. They’re facing the possibility of losing their jobs and having to relocate. But he remained open to any improvements to the school that might help its chances of staying open.

Moving Forward

The task force compiled a list of recommendations for the school should it remain open. Those include expanding beyond elementary level classes to include grades seven and eight, as well as a possible preschool. Adding adult classes and becoming a magnet for students with special needs were also discussed. Mobile programs could be brought to campus, too, to address the BOE’s concern that Maunaloa students do not have the range of opportunities afforded to students at larger campuses.

The Department of Education appointed 10 volunteer educators and active community members to examine the advantages and disadvantages of consolidation.  Once the Task Force files its final recommendation, the complex area superintendant and the state superintendent of education each have 15 days to file their own recommendations. There is no timetable for the BOE’s final decision.

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