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Bills to redevelop school lands criticized

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City Council members are taking aim at bills moving through the Legislature that would redevelop unused land on public school campuses to generate revenue for school facilities.

Many Oahu schools are on city property, and the bills would transfer ownership to a public school lands trust — something the City Council fears could have negative consequences for communities, limit public discussion and affect some city parks on school campuses. School lands on the neighbor islands owned by counties also would be transferred.

"There would be … this major land grab of hundreds of acres of city land," said City Councilwoman Tulsi Gabbard Tamayo, whose district includes downtown Honolulu. "What’s more important to me is the priceless value of these lands within these communities."

Others have also raised concerns about the proposal, including the state Department of Education, Department of Land and Natural Resources, Office of Hawaiian Affairs and Ho-nolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle.

Schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said in testimony to the Senate that though she supports the intent of the measures, it is unclear how the trust would work given the "fractured nature of current ownership of school lands" and uncertainty over whether school lands could really generate "any substantial revenue."

Proponents say the trust is modeled after those in 26 other states, would almost certainly find interest from developers — especially in the urban core — and is an option for generating money to upgrade aging public school facilities at a time of declining budgets.

The DOE has worked over the last decade to attack a massive list of repair projects, which in 2001 stood at $720 million worth of repairs. By last year, the DOE had whittled the backlog to $392 million.

Department officials have pointed out that most of those repairs are for Hono-lulu schools, where the average age of campuses is older. Statewide, more than half of public schools are over 50 years old.

Under the measures before lawmakers, a public school lands trust commission would be formed to identify potential sites for commercial redevelopment, evaluate how a project would affect the existing school on a campus, and oversee redevelopment projects.

If the Ways and Means Committee approves the school lands trust bill today, it would go to the Senate for a third reading.

Jeannie Schultz Afuvai, executive vice president of the Hawaii Institute of Public Affairs, which drafted the bills, said the redevelopment process would allow plenty of community input on how public school lands should be used.

"What we would hope is that everybody would see the benefit for the beneficiaries," she said.

The trust legislation says there is a "considerable amount of underutilized" land on the campuses of Hawaii’s 255 public schools, calling the property an "untapped resource that lies easily within our reach."

It’s unclear how many acres of school lands are owned by the city, but the total is substantial, officials have said. The city and neighbor island counties own the school lands, in many cases, because they used to be responsible for building schools. (The DOE now has that responsibility.)

The measures cite a preliminary review that estimates redeveloping just 10 parcels could generate as much as $120 million.

Tamayo, who called the bills "well-intentioned," said the trust plan has potential. But she has concerns about redevelopment, especially since school properties often double as, or are adjacent to, parks and community centers.

 

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