Over the summer, eight public school principals wrote cover letters for what they thought was an application for grants to run their school composting programs.
The applications, with detailed budgets, were submitted by a deadline of mid-June, for what they thought were grants available to schools for their composting programs. It turns out none of their applications would be processed.
Last year, Gov. David Ige signed Act 207 into law, authorizing the state Department of Education to issue grants to establish composting grant pilot projects at public schools and a working group, with an allocation of $300,000.
Advocates say it was the result of years of lobbying by the Windward Zero Waste School Hui, parents and volunteers, who saw the benefits of on-campus composting programs already in existence for several years, most notably at Ka‘ohao School, a public charter elementary school in Lanikai.
While the final amount was eventually whittled down to $285,000 due to budget constraints, none of those eight schools has yet received a cent of those funds.
>> Photo Gallery: Windward Zero Waste Hui: School composting program
Instead, the DOE awarded a professional services contract to Okahara & Associates, an engineering firm with a long list of clients that include various city and state agencies.
The DOE said it had contracted Okahara & Associates for $285,000 “to assist in establishing the framework for a composting pilot program and campus composting guidelines.”
This contract, the DOE said, was awarded via the professional services procurement method and that Okahara & Associates was qualified because the firm has registered and licensed landscape architects and arborists on staff.
After examining the law, the DOE determined the grant process would constitute parceling, which is prohibited under the state’s procurement laws. So it opted to encumber the funds, but said it might modify the contract so they can support schools with existing composting programs.
Initially, an application form was sent out for amounts of $24,999, and by all appearances was one, with a deadline of June 15 and a set of instructions, according to Mindy Jaffe, coordinator of the Windward Zero Waste Hui.
The DOE, however, says the form was not actually an application and that it was only sent out to gather feedback for the pilot.
Jaffe, who has worked with public schools on Oahu to set up composting programs for 15 years, was stunned, and infuriated to learn none of them received funds, with the first quarter well underway.
Windward Zero Waste is a project of the Oahu Resources Conservation and Development Council, a nonprofit that administers grants providing resource recovery specialists requested by the schools in their applications to manage their composting programs.
Jaffe is contracted to manage the project, and the hui currently runs programs at five schools on the Windward side, including Ka‘ohao, Ka‘elepulu Elementary, Kainalu Elementary, Enchanted Lake Elementary and Kailua Intermediate schools.
Collectively, those five schools have diverted more than 37 tons of waste so far this year.
Numerous schools have called the program successful not only in reducing waste, but in providing students with lessons on science and sustainability.
At Enchanted Lake Elementary the principal said the compost is sold to other school community groups, with proceeds supporting its technology department.
Jaffe was counting on the state funds to help bring composting programs to three more Windward schools, including Maunawili, Kailua Elementary and Olomana School, which also submitted applications. Farrington High School, Manoa and Sunset Elementary were interested, as well, she said.
Now she is concerned about keeping the existing programs going, and the hui has informed schools the composting programs are at risk of shutting down.
State Rep. Chris Lee, who introduced the bill, said the intent all along was to create a state program to provide grants to any public school wanting to support zero- waste initiatives.
“I’ve always been a proponent for more sustainable public schools, and a number of Windward schools had started down that path and done great work,” he said. “The idea was to empower schools to be able to have the programming and pay for the materials that can ultimately save schools a significant amount of money.”
Lee said based on his last conversation with the DOE, his understanding was that the contract would be amended to offer funding to the schools that sent in applications.
Lindsey Whitcomb, a Ka‘elepulu Elementary parent and hui grant writer, said it took years of effort to get a bill through the state Legislature. More than 1,000 students ages 5 to 12 sent letters and drawings explaining why they wanted zero-waste programs in their schools.
The bill had testimonial support from the Ulupono Initiative, the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, and even schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto.
An earlier version of the bill noted already successful, existing programs, she said. The hui, which has in the past relied on foundation grants, volunteers and interns, also applied for a grant-in-aid, without success.
Meanwhile, at Ka‘ohao School, which has been composting since 2014, a group of fourth graders recently harvested about a cubic yard of rich compost, which supports the school’s miniature farm, gardens and fruit groves.
Students grow and sell produce to raise funds, and have over the past few years recovered anywhere from 14,000 to 16,000 pounds of food waste from their campus through hot compost piles and worm bins. The program has been recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It takes a few months to fill a dumpster at the campus, according to Jaffe.
The pounds of food waste, compost pile temperatures and output generated are carefully logged on a marker board as well as online, and counted by the Aloha + Challenge dashboard, which tracks Hawaii’s progress in reaching its sustainability goals.
“You look at the food waste that’s created in these cafeterias every day in all these schools, and you realize that resource-wise, these schools are sitting on a gold mine,” said Jaffe. “Their biggest resource is their garbage. So we take it and turn it into something of value.”
With years of hands-on experience, Jaffe says she has an established protocol, firsthand knowledge of the equipment, procedures, even what kind of nozzle works best, for school composting programs.
Kris Harms, who has a daughter at Ka‘ohao, launched a GoFundMe campaign to help the hui keep the programs going for the rest of this school year.
Harms, a tech entrepreneur, thinks the program is not only great for the students, but a smart investment that is potentially scalable for the entire Kailua-Kalaheo Complex.
The hui needs about $6,000 a month to keep the program running at five schools on a skeleton budget, so the campaign aims to raise $48,000.
“You can’t let a nationally acclaimed program go to waste,” he said. “It’s on the backs of volunteers and low-pay hours by these folks. It’s a punch in the gut for the progress we’re trying to do out here, and that’s the last thing our kids need, especially in the education system.”