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DOE plans to open Kihei high school with ‘hybrid model’

DOT ‘hopeful’ roundabout can help open school; LUC says pedestrian crossing condition remains

The exterior walls are up and the roofs are being built Wednesday morning at the Kihei high school construction project. The building housing the cafeteria, kitchen and library is in the foreground of this photo, while a classroom building is in the background. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

The state Department of Education plans to open the new Kihei high school through a “temporary hybrid model” that will allow incoming freshmen to use space at Lokelani Intermediate this fall before transitioning to the high school’s new campus in January 2023.

Halle Maxwell, principal of the future high school, made the announcement this week.

“While construction of the two classroom buildings, administration building, cafeteria and library building, and locker rooms is proceeding at a brisk pace, due to some unavoidable construction and material delays, we have been informed that completion of these new facilities will be delayed until January 2023,” Maxwell said in a letter on Monday. “This means that the physical campus will not be open for the fall semester as originally planned. We will be opening the new high school with a modified opening to best accommodate our incoming freshman class from Lokelani Intermediate.”

Current eighth-graders at Lokelani are being given the option of attending Maui High School or the new Kihei high school “under a temporary hybrid model” in which Lokelani would house students for the first semester from August to December.

“Due to limited space, we will need to implement a learning model that will allow students to have in-person instruction and virtual instruction,” Maxwell said. “This will not be a distance learning program or a solely virtual program. This is only due to a lack of classroom space. In January 2023, all students will receive in-person instruction on the new high school campus.”

A covered walkway is under construction, as well as a pair of classroom buildings (background) on Wednesday at the Kihei high school site. Earlier this week, the principal of the future school announced in a letter that the school would open “under a temporary hybrid model” that would allow incoming freshmen to use space at Lokelani Intermediate School before transitioning to the new high school campus in January 2023.

DOE officials had said in October that Kihei high school would not open in 2022 as planned after the state Land Use Commission denied the department’s request to open the school without a pedestrian underpass or overpass. A grade-separated crossing has been a condition for the school to open since 2013, and the community has long supported it for the safety of the students walking along the busy Piilani Highway. However, state officials have been pushing back, saying it will prove costly and that a roundabout would solve the problem instead.

On Wednesday, the state Department of Transportation said it is “hopeful” that studies will show that the two-lane roundabout being constructed along Piilani Highway is “safe for all users,” allowing the new Kihei high school to be opened.

DOT said it plans to go to the state Land Use Commission with data collected prior to and following the construction of the roundabout.

“We are hopeful that the data will demonstrate that the roundabout is safe for all users and that the LUC will allow the long awaited school to open for the 167 students,” Ed Sniffen, the DOT deputy director for highways, said in an email Wednesday. “If not, the school opening may be delayed three to five years.”

Sniffen reiterated that in testimony before the LUC, the DOT said the roundabout “will provide safe and efficient access for all modes of transportation for the first phase of the Kihei high school” with the projected 167 students.

Construction of the curved roofs of Kihei high school’s two classroom buildings continues Wednesday morning as part of a beehive of activity with between 150-200 workers on-site.

He said roundabouts can reduce speeds and motor vehicle crashes involving pedestrians, which is backed by the Federal Highway Administration.

The roundabout in the area of Kulanihakoi Street is expected to be operational in November, Sniffen said.

“This will provide time to collect data prior to HIDOE’s (Hawaii Department of Education) plan to open Phase 1 of Kihei High School in 2023,” Sniffen added.

Residents and Land Use Commission members have long taken state officials to task over the pedestrian crossing. In October, the LUC’s vice chairman blamed the DOE for not meeting the condition so the high school could open on time.

When asked about the school opening without the LUC condition being met, a DOE spokesman said “as for highway improvements, you’ll need to check with HDOT. We don’t have jurisdiction there.”

The building that houses the high school’s cafeteria, kitchen and library features a flat, angled roof, while the roofs of the two adjacent classroom buildings have sweeping curves. Also currently underway is an administration building and a locker rooms building. This photo was taken Wednesday.

Maui County Planning Director Michele McLean said in an email Wednesday that she has not heard anything from DOE or DOT regarding the high school for quite some time.

“As far as we are concerned, the school cannot open (and we will not sign-off on CO’s) until an overpass or underpass is constructed and operable,” McLean said of the certificates of occupancy. “If they do, it will be a violation of the LUC’s condition, and we will enforce accordingly.”

Daniel Orodenker, executive officer for the LUC, said on Wednesday that the LUC’s decision and order regarding the high school has not changed. However, he noted that the LUC does not have enforcement power and that would be up to the county.

Kihei Community Association President Mike Moran and longtime community advocate for the school, Andrew Beerer, said on Wednesday they were not aware of Maxwell’s letter to parents, guardians and stakeholders on Monday.

In a text message, Beerer, who is also the association’s Education and Recreation Committee chairman, said: “The Kihei Community Association is excited to see progress on the new Kihei high school construction. We continue to advocate for safe pedestrian and bike access, including an underpass at Waipuilani Gulch. We are also hoping to see some solid plans to use renewable energy when the school opens. In addition, we are hoping the DOE and legislature can provide funding for future phases to provide athletic fields, gym and campus amenities.”

The DOE said this week that it is hiring staff for the Kihei high school. Job opportunities for Kihei and other schools can be found at hawaiipublicschools.org/ConnectWithUs/Employment/JobOpportunities/Pages/home.aspx.

The department is projecting the initial freshman class to be between 140 to 170 students.

Maxwell said that she recently conducted an informational meeting with parents of the eighth-grade class and will continue to conduct additional meetings to keep everyone updated.

The official name of the high school has not yet been determined. An online meeting was held Tuesday evening to discuss historical and culturally relevant information about South Maui and the land where the new campus is being built. No decisions were made.

The school’s webpage is at bit.ly/KiheiHighSchool.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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