Vision of Kihei high school materializing

After years of lobbying from both community residents and lawmakers, it looks like Kihei will finally have a high school complex to call its own.

The state legislative conference committee, consisting of key members from the state Senate and state House, agreed on a $23.7 billion biennium budget proposal Tuesday that appropriates $130 million, as originally requested by Gov. Neil Abercrombie, for a brand new high school complex in Kihei. Lawmakers expect construction to start in July 2015.

“This is a very significant project that Kihei residents have wanted for a long time,” said state Sen. Roz Baker, who represents South and West Maui. According to lawmakers, $30 million will come from general obligation bond funds and $100 million from the state educational facilities improvement special fund.

“Students in Kihei will no longer have to go to Maui High or Baldwin High for school. It will take people off the roads, provide students with greater opportunities in after-school activities, and it will serve as a focal point for the community because they will be able to use the facilities at the school,” said Baker on Wednesday.

Currently, the only high school in South Maui is Kihei Charter School, which does not have the staff and facilities to meet the full regional needs of the community, according to community advocacy groups like the Kihei High School Action Team. Last year, the charter school, which runs independently of and provides an alternative to the traditional public school system, had a total of 248 students in grades 9 through 12.

That means the majority of students living in Kihei had to commute to other districts to attend school.

“In any other district, if a lawmaker was to ask constituents what their priorities are, you’ll probably get six or seven answers at least,” said South Maui Rep. Kaniela Ing on Wednesday. “In Kihei, 99 out of 100 will mention the high school as a priority. That’s how important it is to this community.”

Ing added that the new high school will most likely have a gym, stadium, pool and tennis courts that will be “great, not just for education, but for the community.”

The budget bill still requires a vote and approval by the state House and state Senate, which probably will come sometime next week, said Caroline Julian-Freitas, director of state Senate Communications.

The funding measure with the Kihei high school money is expected to be approved. It will then be up to the state Department of Education to complete the bidding and contract process, which involves acquiring bids from contractors, negotiating building plans, securing permits and working out details of the project.

Both Baker and Ing commended the work of the Kihei High School Action Team for raising awareness, submitting public testimony and continuing to advocate for a new high school in South Maui.

“Their sign wavings got the public aware, they sent out tear slips asking for public testimony and received about a thousand responses,” said Ing. “It was the community involvement that made a difference this year and showed lawmakers this is the time.”

“Mahalo to everyone who believed in a vision of South Maui kids walking through graduation on their own field, in a stadium flanked by their families and friends,” Andrew Beerer, founder and head of the action team, wrote in an email to lawmakers after the budget agreement was reached Tuesday night.

“This is such a wonderful moment . . . (We) can’t wait to break ground,” Beerer said.

The full $130 million in funding will allow the school to be a “design-build project,” instead of being constructed in traditional phases. This will save the state between $20 million and $25 million, according to Baker. Like Kamalii Elementary, which was built by Maui developer Everett Dowling in Kihei, the high school will be put out to bid in its entirety.

Kihei is not the only Maui district that will be seeing improvements. The agreed upon budget also appropriated more than $172 million for the Kahului area, according to a news release from Rep. Justin Woodson, who represents Central Maui. Those measures included:

* $60 million for Hawaii Health Systems Corp.

* $50 million for land acquisition for the Kahului Airport.

* $6 million for improvements to provide safer and more efficient operations at Kahului Harbor.

* $4.7 million for construction of the new Central Maui regional sports complex.

* $950,000 for the construction of phase 2 of the Maui campus of Easter Seals, Maui.

* $500,000 for new construction at Maui Economic Opportunity.

* $250,000 for operations and student training for the Hawaii Opera Theater.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at echao@mauinews.com.