Hawaii school board considers closing Haleiwa Elementary
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Education Writer
The potential consolidation of Hale'iwa and Waialua Elementary Schools is likely to be met with overwhelming disapproval on the North Shore when a public hearing is held on the issue in July.
A task force charged with examining the possible merger of the two schools delivered a report to the state Board of Education on Monday. And although the report does not include a recommendation, it does include arguments for and against closing Hale'iwa Elementary, a small school operating below capacity and with an enrollment that has been on the decline for more than two decades.
The BOE is likely to give the go-ahead for a public hearing at its June 3 meeting. Already, a BOE committee has given the public hearing process preliminary approval, meaning a community hearing could be held as early as the first two weeks of July.
A recommendation for possible consolidation could come by the beginning of August, said Randy Moore, assistant superintendent for facilities and support services.
The state is likely to save some $720,000 a year in operating costs — and eliminate more than $4 million in backlogged repair and maintenance — if Hale'iwa Elementary is closed and its 180 students transferred about a mile away to Waialua Elementary.
But many educators on the North Shore say the action is short-sighted and not in the best interest of students.
"We don't see any plus to this," said Waialua principal Scott Moore, on the possibility of consolidation. He said the school would have difficulty absorbing the students who would be transferred from Hale'iwa.
"At Waialua Elementary we've pretty much used all the space we have. We feel we're pretty much at capacity," he said.
The consolidation scenario being considered for Hale'iwa and Waialua also includes the transfer of sixth-grade students to Waialua High & Intermediate School, which currently educates grades seven through 12 on the North Shore.
Some educators say the community is vehemently opposed to the idea of sixth-graders taking classes on the same campus as high school students.
"Having 12-year-olds sharing a campus with 18-year-olds, that is setting off alarm bells," Scott Moore said. "As an elementary school, we feel sixth-graders definitely need that extra year of nurturing. While they may be OK at a school dedicated to middle school kids, it's not healthy for them to be sharing a campus with high school students."
Citing extensive budget cuts that have led to public school furloughs, education officials in December 2008 embarked on the long and controversial process of studying consolidation of schools as a cost-saving measure in more than 20 communities across the state.
Already, the process is complete in a few communities and has led to closures. Wailupe Valley Elementary, in East O'ahu, was closed last year after a public hearing process similar to the one likely to be conducted in the Hale'iwa-Waialua community. And the BOE voted in February to close Ke'anae Elementary School on Maui.
Similarly, Maunaloa Elementary, the only elementary school serving West Moloka'i, is under consideration for consolidation with either Kaunakakai or Kualapu'u Elementary. A recommendation from that consolidation task force is expected this week.
Educators on O'ahu's North Shore say the consolidation of their schools should be approached as an if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it scenario.
Malaea Wetzle, principal of Hale'iwa Elementary School, said that academically she feels that both her school and Waialua have been delivering quality education to their students.
For the past three years, Hale'iwa made its yearly progress goals under the federal No Child Left Behind law. And in all three years Hale'iwa students have performed slightly better than their statewide counterparts on the Hawaii State Assessment in both math and reading.
"We are providing a good education. We are a good school. We don't think it (consolidation) is in the students' best interest," Wetzle said. "If the students are already doing well under the current circumstances, why would you want to change that?"
But Hale'iwa is a relatively small school with consistently declining enrollment, one of the main reasons the school is being considered for consolidation.
Education Department officials say the cost of operating small schools has prompted them to push harder for closures and consolidations. The DOE has also been under political pressure for the past several years by state lawmakers concerned about the rising costs of repair and maintenance at underused schools.
Wetzle, however, said the advantages of keeping Hale'iwa Elementary in the community outweigh the potential cost savings.
Closing Hale'iwa could mean an at-capacity Waialua Elementary campus and little room to accommodate potential population growth in the community, Wetzle said.
"How much would it cost to reopen the school or open a new school? It seems to me that the $720,000 savings is a bit short-sighted," Wetzle said. "There is still tremendous potential for growth in the Hale'iwa-Waialua community."
Patricia Ann Park, the Waialua complex area superintendent, said the task force also considered an alternative to consolidation. Rather than closing one school, both schools could stay open and they would share equal numbers of students on their campuses.
However, there are questions about whether "equalizing" the enrollments would achieve the goal of saving money.
"I don't see equalizing the enrollment as an option, really. If the consolidation study is based on a financial reason, then you're going to have both schools open anyhow. So where are we saving any money there?" Park said.
She also said the task force had discussed turning Hale'iwa into a middle school.
"Again, if the initial reason for consolidation is a cost factor, then turning that school into another configuration doesn't save any more," Park said.