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Willingness To Make Hard Decisions Scarce

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By Lowell L. Kalapa

One of the first steps the new mayor of Honolulu took after taking office was to set up a commission of volunteers who were asked to inventory and assess the various real property holdings of the city and recommend whether or not the city should dispose of those properties or put them to other uses.

The governor’s Economic Momentum Commission is considering something very similar by calling for a committee to be formed to examine the supply and demand for school facilities and recommend which school facilities should be closed based on declining enrollment and which should be consolidated. While the commission is not singling out which school facilities should be closed, they are setting in motion the process by which those schools will be selected.

For example, as certain neighborhoods in Honolulu mature, enrollment in schools in those older areas begins to drop to the point where there are only a few hundred students in a facility that was perhaps designed to accommodate twice or three times as many students. However, because it still costs money to maintain the facility, turn on the lights, and secure it, those fixed costs remain the same.

Meanwhile, younger families move away from the urban core to areas where new housing is being built and at more affordable prices. The demand for educational facilities in these areas rises while the state struggles to find ways to not only build these facilities on a timely basis but also to come up with the funding for these new facilities.

However, because there are still some parents who have the luxury of sending their children to an under-enrolled school, they fight the idea of closing down these facilities and having their children moved to other nearby schools. But politicians, who depend on every one of those constituent ballots on election day and do not want to ruffle feathers, shy away from making the difficult decision to close those underutilized school facilities.

Perhaps an assessment of the state’s property resources and establishment of criteria of what warrants continued support by the taxpaying public could make it abundantly clear how the state should be using its resources. This should be applied to all facilities owned by the state be they schools or office buildings or even maintenance facilities. Once done, the same committee could identify new uses for those properties and also make recommendations. For example, high on the issues list is the need for affordable housing in the urban core.

Could, in fact, underutilized school facilities be converted into affordable housing? The task could even be outsourced to developers who could benefit with a shared appreciation, building both affordable housing as well as market housing on the same property. The land could remain in the state’s hands but because the developer doesn’t have to pay for purchasing the land, he could do both types of housing without having to recoup subsidized costs for affordable housing from the market housing units.

However, even if those findings were made and recommendations submitted to politicians it might be for naught. The question here is whether elected officials would have the political will to alter the use of facilities if it meant shutting down a school or closing some other kind of popular facility. Given the past track record, the least amount of public outcry causes elected officials to scurry for cover although the number of constituents who will be affected by the action represents such a small percentage of all taxpayers. 

But sometimes that is the very reason we elect people to office, not to make the easy, politically popular decisions but to make the hard decisions that will benefit the majority of the taxpaying public. Perhaps this lack of willingness to make hard decisions arises out of the fact that Hawaii’s elected officials are elected from single member districts. But continued reticence on the part of these officials will do nothing more than perpetuate the myth, if not the fact, that government is inefficient. As taxpayers know, it is this inefficiency that requires the heavy burden of taxes that we all must pay.

Now that the Economic Momentum Commission is forwarding the idea, they might want to consider adding a provision that would make the recommendations of the committee that will examine the closure of school facilities binding unless rejected by a super majority of the legislature. That would provide the “cover” that elected officials will need from their constituents.

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