House education committee Chair Roy Takumi wants to allow the state to lease unused public school land and use the revenue to help improve Hawaii’s schools.
But “public land development” is a hot-button word this session and the proposal for developing public school lands has gotten embroiled in the emotional issue of repealing the state’s land development agency.
The opposition to the agency is so strong that the House committees on finance and land voted Monday to get rid of the organization, which has been criticized as a way to exploit Hawaii’s land for financial gain without regard to the community’s wishes.
But Takumi says the so-called “21st Century Schools” bill is different.
“My hunch is if this bill was introduced and PLDC was a non-issue, I think this bill would have more support,” Takumi said.
The Democrat says he proposed the idea years ago, before the land agency existed, as a way to help cope with the ever-growing backlog of school repair and maintenance needs.
With about $600 million needed for repair and maintenance and between $80 and $100 appropriated by the Legislature every year, general funds aren’t enough, Takumi said.
“We will never catch up,” he said.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, has thrown his weight behind the 21st Century Schools initiative.
But opponents say the distinction between the school land initiative and the public land development agency doesn’t exist.
“They call it a 21st century schools bill?” House Assistant Minority Leader Cynthia Thielen said. “It’s a 21st century land grab.”
Thielen says it doesn’t matter that the public school land bill is dealing with leases rather than sales.
“It’s public-private development on school land,” the Republican said. “Once that’s done, we’re not getting it back.”
Critics of both the PLDC and the 21st Century Schools initiative worry about how potential development could affect their communities and the environment.
Rep. Cindy Evans says the school lands proposal should be amended to give the counties more control over what development takes place.
“The only way we will have public confidence is by involving the community,” Evans said. “That’s got to be guaranteed.”
House committees will vote on the so-called 21st Century Schools initiative Friday.
Despite his support for the issue, Takumi said he’s not confident which way the vote will go.
“Like all pieces of legislation, sometimes it’s not ripe enough,” he said.