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Liliuokalani School on cusp of closure

    Chris Schroeder, with Friends of Puuhale Elementary, campaigned yesterday against closing the school. He also testified at a Board of Education committee meeting yesterday, at which members decided Puuhale should remain open.

Board of Education committee members weren’t convinced by arguments that Queen Liliuokalani Elementary could boost its enrollment if given more time, and recommended last night the school be shuttered in May.

But two schools in Kalihi got good news: The committee voted to recommend Puuhale Elementary remain open, and killed a proposal to close Kalihi Elementary after getting new information about projected school attendance needs for the area.

The full board will make the final call on whether to close either Liliuokalani or Puuhale at its general meeting March 3.

The department is eyeing small schools statewide for consolidation as part of push to save money. So far the state has closed two schools but spared six others on the possible closure list.

Under a Department of Education plan, Liliuokalani’s 98 students would be transferred to Liholiho and Waialae elementary schools next school year.

Liliuokalani parents have come out in force against the closure, saying the school provides a nurturing, safe environment for their kids.

Several testified again yesterday, urging the board to give the community more time to come up with plans that would increase enrollment.

And they expressed anger and disappointment after the BOE Committee on Administrative Services voted 6-0, with three members abstaining, to recommend the school be closed.

"I am very disappointed in the committee decision to close the school," said Karen Tsukiyama, former principal at Liliuokalani, adding that small schools should be given more time to come up with options to increase enrollment. "It’s really unrealistic to just start the dialogue (of closure) one school year and by the end of the school year, close the school. It’s really unfair."

Wayne Watkins, director of the University of Hawaii at Manoa Children’s Center, which has a program at Liliuokalani, said before the committee vote that the school offers students a safe, welcoming place to learn.

He added the department isn’t "looking at environment. It’s not looking at any other factors" except cost savings.

But BOE members said yesterday Liliuokalani has been under threat of closing for years and has not been able to drive up its numbers.

"It is a small school no matter which we way we cut it," said BOE Chairman Garrett Toguchi. "Just given the scale of the numbers here, I cannot help but support the department’s" recommendation to close the school.

The DOE has said closing the school on Waialae Avenue would save about $530,000 in the coming fiscal year.

The campus has eight teachers and class sizes that range from six to 22 children.

Meanwhile, the committee voted 8-0 last night, with two members abstaining, to recommend Puuhale Elementary remain open.

The DOE had proposed closing the school and sending its 234 students to Kalihi Kai Elementary, creating a campus with 833 students.

Parents and community members said that would be too jarring for Puuhale kids, who have seen great gains in reading and math proficiency in recent years — and BOE members agreed.

After the good news for Puuhale yesterday, supporters of the school clapped and cheered.

"Damn skippy!" said Jessie Manlapit, 60, who has a third-grader at the school.

Clint Schroeder of the Friends of Puuhale Elementary said he was "thrilled" and that the vote was a big win for Kalihi.

"It’s great news," he said.

In his testimony at the meeting, Schroeder spoke out against closing Puuhale but also raised concerns over the elected BOE making decisions on school closures.

Voters overwhelmingly supported switching to an appointed board in November, and the governor could put a new board in place as early as next month, once legislation is passed spelling out how BOE appointees should be chosen.

"This decision should be left up to a board appointed by the governor," Schroeder told the committee yesterday. "If you’re not sitting in these seats … you will not be available to be accountable when the decision is made."

That drew sharp remarks from board members, who said they were elected to serve their full terms and would not stop the business of the board.

"I’m very sick and tired of the comments … that this board should wait" to make decisions, Toguchi said. "We have a responsibility to carry out until we are replaced."


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