Rough seas for proposed Kihei high school

KIHEI – More than three dozen South Maui residents heard Saturday that the proposed Kihei high school is not having smooth sailing through the state Legislature.

During a “talk story” session at the Kihei Charter School site at the Lipoa Center, South and West Maui Sen. Roz Baker and freshman South Maui Rep. Kaniela Ing told residents that other lawmakers are concerned about having enough capital improvement funds for projects in their districts.

In December, Gov. Neil Abercrombie submitted his budget to the Legislature, including $130 million – the single largest project in the state’s biennium budget – for construction of the Kihei high school. State Department of Budget and Finance Director Kalbert Young called the amount a “big ask” from lawmakers.

Full funding would allow the state Department of Education to build the school, all at once, as a design-build project, a route that would save the state more than $20 million, Baker said.

While the project has support within the Maui legislative delegation, other lawmakers aren’t necessarily rallying to the cause, she said.

“There’s never enough money to go around for capital improvements,” Baker said after the “talk story” meeting. She added that it’s not that fellow lawmakers don’t support construction of the school. Instead, they are advocating a more traditional, phased-in approach that would cost more in the long run, but not require such an immense single sum, she said.

Baker said it has been to the advantage of high school proponents to have the project included in the governor’s budget.

“If he hadn’t put that in, we’d be scrambling to put that amount or some other amount in,” she said. “I’m certain we’ll have something (in the budget for the school). I know the DOE wants the entire project.”

And so do the residents who attended Saturday’s meeting with the lawmakers. When Antonio Gimbernat stood, listed the number of high schools on Maui and suggested another one wasn’t needed, he was booed and told to sit down.

One woman rose to tell him how her children commute daily from Kihei to Baldwin and Maui high schools in Central Maui. She dismissed him by telling him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Public school officials favor the design-build approach because it’s “a more efficient way to do it,” Baker said. “You get more bang for the buck if it’s a design-build project.”

The approach, which had been employed for construction of Kamalii Elementary School in the 1990s, allows for a single contractor to design and build the school for the state. The traditional method calls for a phased build-out; sometimes with different designers and contractors.

With DOE’s backing, the design-build option remains viable, said Baker, who noted that it’s still early in the state Legislature’s budget-drafting process.

The spending measure has begun in the state House of Representatives as House Bill 200.

Baker and Ing said that Kihei and other Maui residents can help by sending email or regular mail to members of the House Finance Committee. The panel’s chairwoman is Sylvia Luke, and its vice chairman is Scott Nishimoto, both Oahu lawmakers from urban Honolulu.

Ing joins Central Maui Rep. Justin Woodson and Upcountry Rep. Kyle Yamashita on the panel. Yamashita chairs a subcommittee on capital improvement projects, Baker said.

Ing said it’s important for Finance Committee members to know the importance of the Kihei high school project, not just to South Maui but to the island as a whole. Maui and Baldwin high schools are straining to serve the numbers of students at those campuses, and it would help relieve overcrowding if the Kihei school were built soon, he said.

Also during the “talk story” session, Baker came under fire from advocates of mandating labeling food products containing genetically modified organisms.

Senate Bill 615 originally called for prohibiting the sale of genetically engineered fish products, beginning in 2014. But it was changed in the Senate Energy and Environment Committee to call for prohibiting the sale or distribution of genetically engineered whole food.

Baker said that, under Senate rules, the measure should have gone to the Senate Agriculture Committee, instead of hers and she has not acted on it.

She told residents at the Kihei gathering that she’s not convinced that labeling foods as GMOs is a state issue or within state authority to require. An opinion from the state Department of the Attorney General is pending on whether the state has jurisdiction in labeling food, Baker reported.

She said her understanding of the law is that the state can only enforce labeling laws that are consistent with federal rules, and the Food and Drug Administration “has studied and determined that there is no nutritional difference between a GMO food and one that is not.”

Because Hawaii is a small market, it’s unclear that food manufacturers would send products here if there were a labeling requirement, she said.

But a number of residents remained unconvinced and sought to argue the point. One man accused Baker of not supporting the GMO bill because she has received campaign contributions from Monsanto, which farms genetically engineered seed corn on Maui.

State Campaign Spending Commission records show that Baker reported receiving $2,500 from Monsanto and $150 from Frederick Perlak of Kapolei, a Monsanto government relations official.

Those contributions are a fraction of Baker’s total receipts of $183,980 for the 2012 election, according to commission records.

Baker said that the contributions had no bearing on her position on GMOs.

“I have lots and lots of people contributing to me,” she said, adding that she believes they do so because of her merit as a legislator and her willingness to be fair and listen to both sides of issues.

Baker added that she’s a proponent of science, technology, engineering and math, and sees a lot of the people opposed to GMOs as being “anti-science.”

* Brian Perry can be reached at