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Editorial | Our View

Split decision on school closure hard, but sound


A panel of the state Board of Education has made the right decision in recommending the closure of Liliuokalani Elementary School, as wrenching as that news might be for the small school community to hear, especially only a year before the centennial for the Kaimuki campus.

The full board should vote to make that a final verdict when it meets on Thursday. It’s certain to be among the last decisions of major consequence by the elected BOE members before they yield their seats to a soon-to-be appointed school board. On a happier note, parents of Puuhale Elementary School in Kalihi should get a thumbs-up on the proposal to keep that campus operating.

School closures can’t be a pleasant prospect for any authority, whether or not its members have to answer to the voters. Everybody knows how close the ties can be that bind together a school staff, student body and families. But the plain fact is that the school board’s duty is to guide the public school system toward the most effective use of educational resources.

It’s at least partly a numbers game, and the numbers simply weren’t there to justify keeping Liliuokalani open. The panel was clearly persuaded by the Department of Education study on the proposal, which recommended closure. The study tallies Liliuokalani enrollment at 99 students, not even half the campus capacity of 242. And a student body of this small size could be accommodated easily in other schools in the Kalani complex that are similarly well under capacity — and that have maintained higher student proficiency scores than Liliuokalani has managed under federal No Child Left Behind testing.

Further, there is no sign that the campus would languish, underused, as was the case for too long with Wailupe Valley Elementary School. Both campuses sit on leased city-owned land, but when Wailupe closed in 2009, it was turned back over to the city without a clear idea in place for how it would be used. There are city plans to offer recreation classes there starting this summer, but at this point only a few parks and recreation offices occupy the campus.

By contrast, the DOE already plans to expand use of vacated classrooms at Liliuokalani for special-education staff offices. Certainly that’s a better repurposing, at least temporarily. The annual savings from this school closure is $530,000, without counting the savings from consolidating special education in one location.

The BOE panel rejected the recommendation of the other DOE study, voting against closing Puuhale. This also makes sense. Consolidating Puuhale with Kalihi Kai Elementary, one of the options considered, would have boosted that school enrollment to 833 students, the largest elementary in the district. Closure also would have meant a longer and more dangerous walk for the Puuhale keiki, with most compelled to cross busy Dillingham Boulevard to reach Kalihi Kai.

But the most winning argument against consolidation was the student achievement improvements Puuhale students have shown in recent years. Shipping them into a more crowded classroom environment would not be the optimal step, despite the assertion by the DOE study that "the data do not indicate that students in the Farrington complex do better if they are in small schools."

The DOE seemingly bent over backwards, devising a redistricting plan, to retain the small-school environment in the higher-income communities of East Oahu; the children of Kalihi deserve the same consideration.

Overall, the decision-making process the DOE follows in its school-consolidation reviews is far more thorough than it once was; officials now seem less likely to balk when closure is warranted. But there’s still room to improve — especially in converting the property to another use or, where appropriate, in selling it — before the taxpayer can feel its public-education dollars are being spent effectively.

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