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Old school campuses failing to meet modern-day needs

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After a decade of chipping away at accumulated maintenance projects, the Department of Education is adding outdated infrastructure to its priority list for public school campuses.

Education officials told House lawmakers yesterday that urban Honolulu schools in particular need big upgrades of electrical, Internet and other systems.

Backlogged school repairs

» 2001: $720 million
» 2002: $701 million
» 2003: $703 million
» 2004: $666 million
» 2005: $525 million
» 2006: $341 million
» 2007: $370 million
» 2008: $421 million
» 2009: $347 million
» 2010: $392 million
Source: State Department of Education

"Our schools are getting older," public works administrator Duane Kashiwai told the House Education Committee at an informational briefing on the department’s planned capital improvement projects.

Old schools mean bigger repair and maintenance needs — and backlogs.

But they also struggle to meet the needs of modern students when old electrical systems can’t meet higher energy demands or telecommunications lines are unable to deliver high-speed Internet.

Some schools have said they can’t put in new computer labs or even turn on classroom air conditioners because their campuses don’t have enough electrical capacity. Others have slow Internet connectivity.

Nearly 90 percent of public schools are 25 years old or older, Kashiwai said, and 16 percent are more than 100 years old.

Honolulu District, which includes schools in the urban core and East Oahu, has the oldest campuses and the biggest backlog. The district’s 53 schools have a total of $114 million in accumulated maintenance, compared with 42 schools in the Leeward District that have $43 million in needed repairs.

"The older schools get, the more money is needed to maintain them," Kashiwai told lawmakers.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s proposed budget for fiscal years 2012 and 2013 includes $143 million annually for school capital improvement projects, including about $50 million each year for infrastructure upgrades, science lab renovations and other improvements at schools.

The budget also includes $40 million to build Kapolei II Elementary School and $5 million for modernizing Farrington High’s campus.

Through the past decade, increased appropriations have allowed the department to reduce its backlog by 46 percent, from about $720 million in 2001 to $392 million last year.

Much of that money has gone to "recurring" repairs, such as reroofing, painting, carpeting and lighting, at 232 schools statewide.

Until now, less emphasis has been placed on major — and more costly — infrastructure upgrades (or "non-recurring" expenses) of electrical and water lines, and fire alarm and telecommunications systems.

State Rep. Roy Takumi (D, Pearl City-Momilani-Palisades), chairman of the House Education Committee, predicts infrastructure upgrades will be among the fastest-growing needs for aging schools and a struggle to tackle while funds are tight.

"It’s one thing to make sure all the toilets work," he said. "But how you do upgrade (old schools)? They certainly weren’t wired for the Internet age."

Takumi also raised concerns about the potential for accumulated repairs to rise during tough fiscal times.

About $60 million to $75 million worth of repairs are added to the department’s backlog list annually. But last year, funding dipped to $45 million, Kashiwai said.

That contributed to a $45 million increase last year in the total price tag for all neglected repairs.

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