By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
About 70 showed up Sunday afternoon at Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences to discuss the state Department of Education’s decision on Friday to discontinue bus service for students of the Pahoa public charter school.
HAAS Principal Steve Hirakami said that he was informed of the decision — which affects 60 students, 10 of them special-needs students — on Friday afternoon by email. The school year starts today.
“I wasn’t at the table when this decision was made,” Hirakami said. “The Department of Education is supposed to be acting in the best interest of the students. This is about the kids.”
Hirakami said that the decision applies to all charter schools that aren’t “conversion schools,” meaning they were standard public schools that elected to become charter schools. He added that some charter schools have their own buses, but HAAS students ride the same Roberts Hawaii contract buses that service Pahoa High and Intermediate School, and pay $2.50 per student per ride, double what regular public school students pay.
“They told us it was an economic decision, but I fail to see how it’s an economic decision,” Hirakami said. “They have room on the buses and they’re going to lose money. They’re going to let 50 seats go vacant while our kids pay double the price? Most of the kids at Pahoa don’t have to pay because of the socioeconomic area. So for the DOE, it’s a lose-lose situation. They’re totally subsidizing student transportation, where in this case, there’s a way for them to recover some of their costs back. So I scratch my head when I hear economic decision.”
Special-needs students have curb-to-curb transportation services specified in their individual education plans and are exempt from the payments, Hirakami said.
“One of our curb-to-curb kids has a brother in the same household and he goes to Pahoa,” he said. “So come (this) morning, the curb-to-curb bus will to the house and pick one brother up and leave the other one home. It’s that kind of mentality that I don’t understand.”
One woman said it’s a financial hardship to drive her grandson between her home in Hawaiian Paradise Park and HAAS daily, but she will do it.
“(Today) school starts. (Today) I’m gonna pick him up, and that’s just me and my grandson in the car. I have room for three students. This is an immediate need,” she said. “Is there anything in place right now for carpooling, for things that parents can do now to get our kids to school?”
“The timing is off, isn’t it?” Hirakami replied. “Of course, we can do carpooling, van pooling. If they had just leveled with us in May and said, ‘This is it. Now go do your thing.’ We wouldn’t have been sitting here Sunday afternoon, the day before school starts, to try to figure this out.”
One suggestion that seemed to have the support of many present was to set up carpools in the parking lots of the various subdivision community association headquarters.
Councilman Greggor Ilagan, who represents Pahoa, said he wants to set up a meeting that includes Hirakami, Pahoa High and Intermediate Principal Darlene Bee, state Rep. Faye Hanohano and state Sen. Russell Ruderman to explore possible solutions.
“What I don’t like about this situation is that the DOE didn’t even give you enough time to prepare for a solution and that’s not even right,” he said. “… I love the fact that the community here has the family approach where you’re talking about picking up your neighbor’s child and so on. But we do need a permanent solution, and for that to happen, it has to be an existing bus route that the DOE is currently providing.”
Hanohano said that sometimes, policy makers in Honolulu see the neighbor islands only as “competing for money and for resources with Oahu.”
“A lot of the decisions are made on Oahu and they don’t always put all the stakeholders at the table and talk it out realistically,” she said.
Added Hirakami: “There they’ve got a great municipal bus system where the buses literally stop in front of houses. Bus stops are everywhere.” He said the county Mass Transit Agency has been helpful in the past and hopes they can find a way to help again.
Juniper Debolt, a 14-year-old HAAS freshman who had planned to take the bus to school, said she is “feeling a little shut-out and stressed.”
“My family cannot afford to pay 10 bucks, 15 bucks a day for gas … to go back and forth to school every day,” she said. “My mom is going to drive me and my sister to school for the first week of school, but we need something that’s gonna last. My mom’s saying, ‘Hey, we’re gonna have to home-school you if we’re gonna have to pay this much every day for you to go to school.’”
Said Hirakami: “This is outside of the law. This is outside of policy. The wheels came off somehow.”
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.