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TMT fight puts education grants in jeopardy

Putting a stop to the Thirty Meter Telescope also would mean losing $250,000 a year for Native Hawaiian scholarships provided by the project’s education fund, an issue that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs board chairman is keeping in mind as the state agency faces pressure from protesters to change its endorsement.

In an emailed response to the Tribune-Herald, Bob Lindsey’s spokesman said the chairman is “extremely concerned” about potentially losing the funding, administered by the Pauahi Foundation.

“It is increasingly clear to me that a strong foundation in science, technology, engineering and math must be part of any meaningful impact that we expect any new generation of Native Hawaiian students to have in reshaping the Hawaii Island workforce,” Lindsey was quoted as saying in an email from spokesman Kama Hopkins.

Lindsey, who represents Hawaii Island on the OHA Board of Trustees, sits on the advisory committee for The Hawaii Island New Knowledge fund at the Pauahi Foundation.

The TMT Observatory Corp. launched the fund, which provides $250,000 a year to Pauahi Foundation and $750,000 a year to Hawaii Community Foundation, last November to support science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education on the island.

A TMT spokeswoman said that fund will last for as long as the 180-foot-tall observatory sits on Mauna Kea. It has an existing sublease until 2033 and is designed to last for 60 years.

The Pauahi Foundation, which supports Kamehameha Schools, is using its share to award scholarships to Hawaiian students from the island who are pursuing STEM degrees.

Pauahi Executive Director Keawe Liu said in an email that about 40 Hawaiian students will receive scholarships this year and is expected to increase to 85 students annually in four years.

OHA has scheduled a meeting Thursday to reconsider its support for TMT. Lindsey said he hopes to find middle ground.

“Our shared goal is to engage everyone on both sides of the issue in helping to resolve this matter,” he said in the statement to the Tribune-Herald. “We agree that the current situation at Maunakea presents an opportunity to address some long standing unresolved issues that have been raised by the Hawaiian community at the same time find a constructive course of action to permit a balance of science and culture to co-exist on Maunakea.”

A group challenging the $1.4 billion TMT project in court issued a press statement Friday calling for the telescope’s sublease to be rescinded, restoration of the mountain, and removal of telescopes when the University of Hawaii’s existing master lease ends in 2033.

The university is seeking a new lease from the state to allow astronomy to continue beyond that date.

The group also said it wants all existing telescopes to pay fair market value for their subleases until the expiration date. TMT would be the first to pay more than $1 a year in rent.

Kealoha Pisciotta, a TMT opponent who was named on the press release, has said that scholarships won’t change the project’s impact on the mountain.

She said in an email to the Tribune-Herald that the THINK fund is a way for “TMT to avoid the law which requires ‘fair market’ lease rent for the use of ceded lands.”

“Those funds would go into the general fund to be used for education and certainly would amount to much more than the THINK fund,” she said.

TMT is paying $300,000 a year in rent and will pay $1 million annually when operational. Eighty percent of that goes to the Office of Mauna Kea Management, and 20 percent is distributed to OHA.

An HCF spokeswoman said the organization is using its share of the THINK fund mainly to support scholarships in STEM fields, and STEM learning grants for schools and nonprofit organizations.

For the latter, $500,000 has been distributed to 24 Hawaii Island groups this year, with $200,000 of that financed by TMT.

Another $57,276 has gone to fund 33 school projects on the island through www.donorschoose.org, which allows teachers to seek donations for school supplies online. The spokeswoman said $100,000 will be distributed to Hawaii Island teachers through the website this year.

Recipients reached by the Tribune-Herald said the funds provide a welcomed boost to STEM education, which can be expensive and difficult to sustain.

“We’re really graced with that. It’s awesome,” said Glenn Gray, Holualoa Elementary School principal.

The school received $15,000 for its STEM program, he said.

“I think it’s a challenge for schools to do these kinds of initiatives,” Gray said.

But with protests continuing against the TMT, which will be the largest observatory yet on the mountain, not everyone was eager to talk about the grants.

An East Hawaii teacher whose science project was mostly financed through the THINK fund pleaded with a reporter not to mention her class since her daughter is protesting the telescope.

The school programs funded so far include four Hawaiian schools and nonprofit groups. Most didn’t return phone calls requesting comment.

Kaialii Kahele, executive director of Paa Pono Milolii, acknowledged that the ongoing controversy puts Hawaiian organizations, like his, in an awkward position.

While the funds are appreciated, Kahele said he also has to explain to students and families where the money comes from. With the Milolii community, called the last Hawaiian fishing village, hosting its own anti-TMT protest recently, he expects that to create some difficulty.

“We’re in between a rock and a hard place,” he said.

“We are in a Hawaiian community. We are very tied to cultural history and at the same time we try to bridge the gap with modern science.”

Kahele said his organization received $15,000 from the fund for a program that combines traditional ocean navigation that Hawaiians mastered and modern aerospace.

Regarding whether the TMT should be built, he said he is trying to stay neutral.

“What happened over the course of the last month or two months was something I wasn’t expecting,” Kahele said.

A TMT spokeswoman said the nonprofit corporation has been supporting educational programs on the island before the THINK fund started.

That includes $441,678 to maintain the Akamai Workforce Initiative since 2009; an $80,000 internship program to send Hawaii students to India, China, Japan and Canada; and more than $90,000 for school robotics programs and tournaments.

Dale Olive, a teacher at Waiakea High School, said his robotics program would have ended in 2009 if it wasn’t for financial support from TMT.

“They kind of saved our bacon here four or five years ago,” he said. “They put their money where their mouth is, really.”

Olive said robotics helps to keep students interested in STEM, adding some have told him it changed their lives.

While he didn’t apply for THINK funds the first year, Olive said he is concerned about losing the program if the observatory is stopped. He doesn’t see anything else taking its place.

“The Big Island is not a hotbed for industry lately,” Olive said. “I got a feeling there is nobody else out there.”

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

— $250,000 a year to Pauahi Foundation for scholarships.

— $750,000 a year to Hawaii Community Foundation:

• $100,000 for scholarships

• $100,000 to classroom projects

• $200,000 for learning grants

• $250,000 to endowment for Hawaii Island STEM education

• Remaining funds to be determined.

 

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