By ANITA HOFSCHNEIDER
HONOLULU — The Senate Education Committee voted Monday to move forward a bill that would allow the state to develop public school lands through private-public partnerships.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie is pushing for the so-called 21st Century Schools initiative to raise money for repairing and maintaining Hawaii’s schools, which are an average of 65 years old.
The issue has gained momentum this session — the House and Senate passed different versions of the much-debated proposal earlier this month — but still, many residents worry about its impact on their communities.
On Monday, senators heard the House version of the bill. They replaced its text with the Senate proposal, a more cautious approach that allows just two projects in three years. The bill goes next the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.
Lawmakers’ cautiousness is partially in response to an outpouring of criticism from people who fear the initiative is an offshoot of the state’s much-maligned public land development agency. The agency has been censured for its broad power to override county zoning and permitting laws, and both chambers have voted to repeal it.
Although the school land development bill is a separate proposal, some say that its impact would be no different.
Waikiki resident Liz Larson told senators Monday that she is worried about how the bill will affect inner-city schools.
“If a high-rise structure is developed on the property of Jefferson Elementary School, the land will never be reclaimed for the children,” said Larson, who has two sons at the school that sits at the edge of Oahu’s famous hotel district.
Larson said she knows that land in Waikiki is valuable and could bring in a lot of revenue. But she said open space on school properties is especially important for families like hers who raise their kids in one-bedroom apartments.
“We’re the ones who value the land the most,” she said.
Neither the House nor the Senate drafts specify which schools could be developed first. But Jefferson Elementary School Principal Scott Parker testified in favor of the bill, calling the plan a “no-brainer.”
House Committee on Education Chairman Roy Takumi said it would make sense to consider urban schools for pilot projects, suggesting Waikiki Elementary School, saying it would be easier to consolidate urban schools rather than rural schools.
He also suggested schools that are sitting on expansive properties such as Kihei High School on Maui, which he said has 77 acres of land.
Both Takumi and Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Jill Tokuda said the proposals create a process that allows for significant community input.
Tokuda said a pilot program is essential to show the community that their fears about the idea are unwarranted.
“We can’t legislate trust,” she said.
Both Tokuda and Takumi said it’s unfair to compare the proposal to the public land development agency because the development must abide by all existing development rules.
They pointed to universities as an example of where public-private partnerships have been successful. Takumi said Jamba Juice on University of Hawaii at Manoa is an example of a private company filling a community need.
Takumi said the House plans to hear the Senate version of the initiative soon and will likely replace the Senate bill with the House version.
The details of the plan will be worked out during conference, he said, which is when lawmakers from both chambers convene to work out compromises on the bills.
One of the main differences between the chambers’ proposals is who should oversee the development.
Takumi said he thinks the Board of Education should have the final say on the projects to ensure that education is always prioritized.
Tokuda said allowing the lieutenant governor to facilitate the program is the best option because he has more resources and expertise at his disposal.
She said the Senate proposal still gives the Board of Education and the Department of Education the right to choose the development sites and manage the leases.