Updated: October 3, 2022
The superintendent of the Hawai’i State Department of Education and an architect with the agency were invited to attend Thursday’s Maui County Council committee meeting to discuss the pedestrian highway crossing to the new high school in Kīhei that is supposed to open in just four months.
Both were no shows.
“Unfortunately, the state DOE did not want to face the music so to speak to the community,” said Tamara Paltin, chair of the Planning and Sustainable Land Use Committee.
Committee member Michael Molina was even harsher when told that Superintendent Keith T. Hayashi and architect Gaylyn Nakatsuka with DOE’s facilities development branch did not even respond to the invite that was made by phone call and email.
“This is really, really awful,” Molina said. “… This is making a statement on their part: They donʻt care. They don’t care if the kids get killed.”
The Department of Education declined to respond about why no representative from the agency attended the committee meeting.
When the state Land Use Commission approved the Department of Education’s request to rezone 77 acres from agriculture to urban for construction of the much-needed school in South Maui, the department agreed to several conditions that included building an overpass or underpass for pedestrians and bicyclists to safely cross the busy, four-lane Pi’ilani Highway. The ordinance went into effect in 2014.
At Thursday’s County Council committee meeting, the committee members agreed to do the only thing they have the authority to do in this matter. They will send a resolution to Gov. David Ige and possibly the State Legislature, with wording similar to the County Council’s resolution sent to the state Land Use Commission in 2019.
Resolution 19-20 urged the State Land Use Commission to affirm the requirement for a pedestrian overpass or underpass when the Department of Education was “essentially trying to get the condition removed or significantly weakened,” said Maui County Planning Director Michele McLean.
“The Land Use Commission clearly said no,” McLean said.
That was three years ago. Since then, the Department of Education collaborated with the Hawai’i State Department of Transportation to put in a $16 million roundabout with only a road-level crosswalk with rapid flashing beacons. Their plan was to gather data about the roundabout once it was in operation — and when only a limited number of the eventual 1,600 students would be enrolled — to “hopefully” show it was safe and other crossings were not necessary.
Committee member Kelly King, who represents South Maui, said the Department of Education’s “attitude” that the road-level crosswalk would be fine because only one class would be using it at first doesn’t make sense. “Does that mean if only one kid gets hit, is that okay?” she asked.
Mike Moran, president of the Kīhei Community Association, said for nearly a decade the Department of Education “has dug in its heels” to find ways not to meet that condition. “Now they have painted themselves into a corner, and are really stuck.”
There are currently 27 ninth graders attending the newly named Kūlanihākoʻi High School at the temporary site at nearby Lokelani Intermediate School. The students are excited to move out of the portable classrooms and into the new school on the mauka side of Piʻilani Highway with Haleakalā as a backdrop.
But Maui County Planning Department Director Michele McLean said the county cannot give the school a certificate of occupancy to open in January unless the Department of Education gets an amendment to the overpass/underpass condition from the Land Use Commission.
In the meantime, McLean said: “I am concerned that there are families who want the school to open, and on their own initiative they will make certain their kids get their safely.
“Even though I do feel like there are parents and the [Kihei Community Association] and the council who want us to hold the line like we are, it is going to be really tough when the school is ready to be open. I think there are going to be families saying: ‘I’m sick of my kids having to go to Central Maui. Come on county. Sign off’.”
Tsancyi Lynch is the mother of 14-year-old Cheyenne Gorman, one of the 27 ninth graders attending the temporary school and eager to move into the new school.
Lynch said they live about 3 to 4 miles from the new school, so her daughter would need to be bused to the school, eliminating her having to cross Piʻilani Highway on foot.
“I think the roundabout thing is scaring everybody,” Lynch said. “But they need the high school. It is not easy, but I hope they figure it out.”
In a Maui Now Facebook post, Mitsue Okamura Eldredge said her son also was one of the 27 ninth graders at the temporary school.
“Personally, I am very excited about the new school opening next year. So far, I am very happy with the wonderful principal, Mrs. [Halle] Maxwell, and the staff who really care about the students.
“Kīhei Charter students cross the busy Lipoa intersections. I see that [Maui Police Department] officersʻ presence seem very helpful. … I think we all need to slow down and be more careful driving, not only school traffic hours but all day.”
McLean said that the Department of Education has “tried and failed” to get the condition of an overpass or underpass removed, and “it seems to me they have finally realized they have to take a different approach.”
On Sept. 2, a spokesman for the Department of Education said it will post a public online survey for community input about the measure. The department “hopes to get more specific details from parents and guardians on their individual transportation plans and feedback on community priorities for the crossing.”
This survey is part of the department’s Pedestrian Crossing Alternatives Study, which already has held five focus groups attended by 60 people. A community open house is planned for later this month.
But building an overpass or underpass will take anywhere from 3 to 6 years, according to the Department of Education consultants. And there is no funding for it now.
McLean said earlier this week if the Department of Education still plans to open in January it needs to quickly come up with a proposal about using busses, crossing guards or some alternate plan to safely transport or guide students and others across the highway, and then have that proposal approved by the Land Use Commission as an amendment.
Moran said: “Nobody has faith in the DOE” to open the school and then follow through with building an overpass or underpass.
And, he added, that with the current school bus driver shortage, “where would the magical buses and drivers come from?”
McLean told the council committee she has urged the Department of Education to at least put a placeholder on the Land Use Committee agenda for this issue. But so far, the state agency has not done so.