Connections fights for new campus


Supporters of Hilo-based Connections New Century Public Charter School were dealt last week another blow in their long-delayed effort to build a new campus in Kaumana.

In a report issued April 7, a hearing officer recommended that Hawaii County’s Windward Planning Commission deny a special permit for Connections to build its school on agricultural land given to it by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The plans for the school have been in development since 2006, and leaders say they have no intention of backing off now.

“We’re not going to give up,” said John Thatcher, the school’s principal. “We’re going to pursue all of our legal avenues, everything we can do.”

Attorney Ted Hong, who represents the school, said Monday that he anticipates the planning commission will “rubber stamp” the hearing officer’s recommendation and deny the special permit at its next meeting on May 1, at which point he plans to appeal in court.

“There’ll be two main issues before the 3rd Circuit Court,” he said. “When you look at this case, you look at objective standards. In (hearing officer Sandra Song’s) report, she highlighted two standards. One, had to do with the effect on the community, for which there are no objective standards. … And the second was the water issue, and what I’m concerned about there is the application of different standards.”

In Song’s report, she expressed concern that the school, in its final build-out phase, would not have access to enough water.

“Based on a 60 (gallon-per-day) student standard, 4,200 gallons of county water could only support 70 students,” reads Song’s report. “At full build-out, the entire development would require 26,100 gpd.”

But, Hong said, other projects across the island are approved based on the merits of the phase currently under construction, not future expansions.

“Every governmental agency, including the water department, took a look at this project and said it was fine. … It doesn’t take into account changes in technology, in regards to water usage. It doesn’t take into account the fact this is one of the wettest areas around Hilo, and we could use it to, for instance, flush the toilets. That’s why I say this is going to go to the Circuit Court,” Hong said.

Thatcher said he was initially “flabbergasted” by Song’s report.

“I sat through all those hearings, and I was amazed she came up with those conclusions,” he said.

He added that many of the hearing officer’s assertions seemed to belie a lack of knowledge about how charter schools work.

“One of her complaints was that the school wasn’t open to attendance by everyone in its area. I had assumed she had done her research on charter schools. As a startup charter, we’re not allowed to limit ourselves to a particular area. We’re open to everyone on the island, and we have to have a drawing every year,” Thatcher said.

Currently, the school has an $8 million low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to aid with construction costs for the campus project, which will cost about $20 million at full build-out.

The development would include a new charter school with dormitory facilities and related improvement for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. It would sit on 70.15 acres of land within the State Land Use Agricultural District between Puainako Street and Kaumana Drive.

Attempts to contact a spokesman for the neighborhood group opposing the school were unsuccessful as of press time.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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