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Telescope company continuing Big Island education fund

  • COURTESY TMT

    An artist rendering made available by the TMT Observatory Corporation shows the proposed Thirty Meter Observatory.

The nonprofit company trying to build the Thirty Meter Telescope is continuing with its pledge to donate $1 million annually for educating students on the Big Island, even though its future in the state is in limbo.

In 2014, telescope officials promised $1 million every year of the 19-year Mauna Kea sublease to boost science, technology, engineering and math education. The first million was distributed around the time protesters decrying building a giant telescope on a mountain many Native Hawaiians consider sacred forced construction to halt. The project remains stalled amid intense opposition and a state Supreme Court ruling that invalidated the construction permit.

The high court ordered a new contested-case hearing for the permit, putting The Hawaii Island New Knowledge (THINK) fund in an awkward position. Pulling the plug would hurt students who benefit from the money, but the fund was promised as long as the observatory is in operation or under construction.

Funding the second year’s $1 million was the “right thing to do,” Sandra Dawson, the project’s Hawaii community affairs manager, said Friday. “A decision was consciously made, deliberately made, to continue the payments,” she said.

The fund distributes 75 percent to the Hawaii Community Foundation and the remainder to Pauahi Foundation. The two organizations then award grants and scholarships. Most of the awards have been given to Native Hawaiian students, Dawson said.

Thirty Meter Telescope initially didn’t publicize that it has given the full $2 million. “That was partly deliberate,” Dawson said. “There’s a philosophy. If you’re going into classrooms and educating kids, it’s not a place where you kind of advertise.”

During a Chamber of Commerce panel about Mauna Kea earlier this year, telescope supporters were urged to be more vocal about highlighting the benefits to Hawaii. “Maybe we should have done more than we did,” Dawson said about publicizing the fund.

On Monday, the fund was mentioned in a news release the project’s public relations firm distributed about Thirty Meter Telescope being recognized by the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce for its community education work.

The idea for THINK fund came during the early stages of the project when telescope officials held community meetings on Hawaii Island, where residents questioned how it would benefit them, Dawson said.

“TMT immediately recognized the validity of that concern. With almost no, if any negotiations, the TMT board said how about a million dollars a year for education,” she said.

Telescope officials say Mauna Kea remains the first choice, but they are looking for alternate sites in case the project can’t be built in Hawaii.

Dawson couldn’t answer definitely what will happen to the fund if the telescope leaves: “The THINK fund is based on TMT being in Hawaii,” she said.

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