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State lawmakers push school land development

    The fate of Liliuokalani Elementary School is now a hot topic after the Board of Education's recent decision to close the 99-year-old school.

Representatives from three House committees are moving forward a plan to let the state raise revenue by developing unused public school lands.

House committees on land, education and finance approved the bill today, but the vote didn’t go smoothly.

"This is the PLDC," said Rep. Gene Ward of East Honolulu, referring to the highly criticized Public Land Development Corp. "This is one of its children."

The House voted unanimously to get rid of the state land agency Thursday in response to persistent, vocal opposition denouncing the organization as a pathway to unbridled development.

Ward and Rep. Cynthia Thielen, both Republicans, told fellow committee members today that the proposal to develop school lands was no different.

Rep. Cindy Evans, chairwoman of the House Committee on Water and Land, disagreed.

"In no way do we at the Legislature want to circumvent local community plans," the Democrat said as she laid out her proposed amendments to the school land development bill.

Evans proposed removing any mention of the PLDC from the bill, allowing the Board of Education to manage the development projects and limiting the number of projects to just five.

But Ward said the changes aren’t enough.

"It will be top-down control," Ward said. "It will be control from the governor’s office."

House Education Committee Chairman Roy Takumi, a Democrat, tried to assuage the concerns by saying any development projects would be compatible with the needs of the schools and their surrounding communities.

"It won’t be like a pawn shop and a wastewater treatment facility," Takumi said.

He said the bill is necessary because it is impossible for the state to keep up with the costs of aging infrastructure.

Farrington High School in Honolulu has buildings that are a century old, causing health and safety concerns, Takumi said.

But still, several lawmakers voted with reservations and the most vocal opponents of the bill refused to be silenced.

At one point in the hearing, Evans told Ward multiple times that he was out of order when he insisted he be allowed to respond to Takumi.

"I’m sorry, this is a democracy," said Ward, talking over her. "People should be heard."

The bill next goes to the full House for a vote.

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