The backlog of repair and maintenance projects at Hawaii’s public schools is an estimated $868 million, roughly three times worse than what legislators were told in January.
State Rep. Sylvia Luke, who chairs the House Finance Committee, said she was astonished to learn the actual size of the backlog and how the figures got so out of whack.
“I’ve known this for several months now because I’ve been working with the Department of Education,” Luke said in an interview. “I think it will be a shock to some of the other legislators when they find out.”
The good news is that the Department of Education is launching an online database so the community can keep tabs on each project as it progresses, opening up to scrutiny what has been somewhat of a black box.
And it has adopted a new system — known as “job order contracting” — that will cut the time to complete some repair projects from several years to a matter of months.
Luke said she is frustrated that legislators were misled about the size of the problem but welcomes the new approaches the department is taking.
“To their credit, they (DOE staff) came almost immediately and disclosed the misinformation,” she said. “They said they would work with us to correct this wrong. Clearly, they understand that this was a significant error in their approach.”
In a budget briefing at the Legislature in January, school officials had reported the repair and maintenance backlog was $293 million as of 2017, a significant drop from $392 million in 2010.
The revelation about the real extent of the problem came later this year after a “deep dive” by a new leadership team, including fresh eyes from the private sector, said Dann Carlson, assistant superintendent for school facilities and support services.
Under the old system, projects were checked off the pending R&M list when initial funds were spent on them, even if it was just design money, not construction and much less completion. Information on different projects was scattered throughout the bureaucracy. There was no automated system to track funded projects.
“It took us going through our entire system to get this information in one place,” Carlson said, pointing to a new graph his office has produced showing a breakdown of 3,800 pending projects into 11 categories.
The biggest category, for roofing projects, shows 696 projects estimated to cost $196 million. That is followed by $185 million for grounds projects, then $129 million for mechanical, electrical and plumbing projects and on down to the smallest category, $4 million for 30 accessibility projects.
“When it started spitting out these numbers, that’s when we started saying, ‘Wait a minute, the way we’re reporting our repair and maintenance backlog just was not accurate,’” Carlson said.
He said another tip-off was when he heard recent estimates of R&M needs at the University of Hawaii’s 10-campus system. The latest figure for UH deferred maintenance is $722 million, according to UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl.
“We are orders of magnitude larger when it comes to facilities compared to U of H,” Carlson said. “It caused me to question, How can we be reporting $293 million?”
The Department of Education has 256 public schools and is responsible for 4,425 buildings. One out of every 5 public schools is more than 100 years old.
The new online database, now being tested for launch early next year, encompasses all capital improvement and repair and maintenance projects. For each, it shows when money was appropriated, when it was allocated, when contracts were awarded and how much of the contract has been paid, indicating how close it is to completion.
“Any of our legislators, any of our board members, any of our school administrators will have access to this information,” Carlson said. “It’s a much more transparent system. People will have the ability to pull that information anytime.”
A public version of the database for the broader public will also be developed for release in the next school year.
Previously, if a legislator wanted to get a status report on projects in his or her district, DOE staff would have to “go to nine different places” to get the information, Carlson said.
The online data tracker puts that information at their fingertips, searchable by school, district and category.
“I’m pleased that they worked really quickly to get this system up and running,” Luke said. “But one of the things I’m not sure about is whether the superintendent understands why this needed to be done, what a serious problem this was.”
Superintendent Christina Kishimoto took the reins at the Department of Education in August 2017.
A second big initiative the Department of Education has launched is “job order contracting,” which is expected to expedite certain repair projects.
The traditional design-bid-build method is a drawn-out approach, from appropriation to design, bidding, protests over awards, construction and sometimes cost overruns. On average it takes seven years.
Job order contracting works to speed up common repairs by selecting contractors through a competitive bid to perform various separate but repetitive jobs at fixed prices over a period of time. The aim is to get the work done quickly and easily.
DOE is starting with roof repairs under this method and then plans to move on to heating, ventilation and air conditioning projects.
Over the last five fiscal years, a total of $704 million has been appropriated in lump sum allotments for repair and maintenance projects at the Department of Education. Of that, $175 million went to outsourced construction management, $110 million to information technology projects at schools, $65 million to complete underfunded legislative line-item projects, $43 million for energy efficiency projects and $25 million for heat abatement, according to DOE.
How much money the public schools will get this year is an open question. Luke said the revelations about the size of the backlog put the Legislature in a tough spot, given competing demands on the budget.
“It has put us in a really difficult position,” Luke said. “I don’t know whether DOE understands the significance of this new information, because we were all hoping and DOE was also believing that we were making a dent in the backlog.”
“We have to re-evaluate and think about how to provide money and make sure that those projects are done before we give them any more,” she said.
BY THE NUMBERS
Hawaii public schools
256: Hawaii public schools
1 out of 5: public schools more than 100 years old
$868 million: repair and maintenance backlog reported for 2018
$293 million: repair and maintenance backlog reported for 2017
7 years: average time to complete projects with old design-bid-build method
6 months: time to complete projects with new “job order contracting”
Source: State Department of Education
This is the graphic that was sent to art. Follow this link.
REPAIR & MAINTENANCE
Chatter: Hawaii’s public schools have about 3,800 pending repair and maintenance projects, with a total cost estimated at $868 million. This shows the breakdown among different categories.
Source: Hawaii Department of Education