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Approve school land fund

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Necessity being the mother of invention, it’s good to see lawmakers motivated — in this case, by the dire need of public schools confronting a huge budget deficit — to come up with innovative financing ideas.

The idea is a bold one: Create a school land trust, redesignating properties no longer in use as public school campuses as "public school trust land" that is conveyed to an independent agency to manage. The notion has moved in the form of Senate Bill 1385 and House Bill 952, gaining multiple hearings in both houses, and that fact underscores just how wide a net legislators are casting to find solutions to the state’s fiscal problems.

Although the proposal this week morphed into something more attainable with a limited scope, the basic goal remains the same: Revenue from this land would fuel a special fund underwriting improvement of schools for 21st-century needs, erasing some of its mountainous backlog of repairs.

The problem with the original plan is that the ownership of the land beneath Hawaii’s 257 public school campus comes with layers. Sometimes it’s state-owned, sometimes it’s county-owned, and sometimes it’s on "ceded" land that was once part of the old Hawaiian kingdom, which means it would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to sell. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which receives a share of revenues from ceded land, opposes the school land trust idea, preferring to discourage all sales of ceded land. Officials of all four counties also unanimously assailed the idea as a land grab.

The land-trust idea still exists in HB 952, now in the Senate. But the form of the bill with the apparent support to pass this year is a new draft of SB 1385, which takes a more modest, but still creative, approach, one that also addresses the need for rental housing that’s affordable by Hawaii’s workforce.

<*h"Star-Bulletin">And something clearly needs to happen, sooner rather than later. State Rep. Roy Takumi, chairman of the House Education Committee, said the degraded condition of aging schools makes some form of action necessary: About 40 percent of the school facilities statewide are more than 70 years old.

The three-year pilot program now proposed by SB 1385 would enable the leasing of up to 10 campuses that need upgrading, creating a special fund to receive the lease-rent money, as well as an unpaid advisory panel of land-use professionals that the Board of Education would appoint. A new tax credit for public school construction would be established as an incentive to private developers, who could replace the old school buildings with a mixed-use highrise. Schools would occupy the lower floors, with affordable-housing units above.

Takumi argues persuasively that the relatively low cost of the tax-credit program, amounting to a maximum of $25 million spread over the three-year test period, is a reasonable investment that could work out to be a bargain for the state. And if the school sits on county-owned land, the county could create its own legislation to reap property taxes from the development, sharing in the revenue. It would be smart to get the counties on board with this.

Obviously, this program does not offer a solution to the entire problem of managing school resources more effectively. Schools that are considered for closure often are located in suburban neighborhoods where a dense, mixed-use redevelopment is inappropriate. It probably would not have worked, for example, for the site of the former Wailupe Valley Elementary School, a city-owned property that was allowed to languish for months before plans took shape for its use.

But SB 1385, as now amended, represents a step in the right direction. And in these hard times, lawmakers should take such opportunities for even limited progress when they come along.

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