Major school-renovation projects take time, but are worth the wait

LIHU’E – Elsie H. Wilcox Elementary School Principal Rachel Watarai said minor repairs are handled in a timely manner by her custodians and those from the state Department of Accounting and General Services (DAGS).

Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories about the public-school, repair-and-maintenance program

Major repairs take time, but the results are worth the wait, she said.

Major renovations started at Wilcox Elementary School in the summer of 2004, and have continued since then. During the school year, interior work like retiling, putting in sinks, white boards, light fixtures, window sashes, and painting are done. During summer, major work, like replacing aging sliding doors with regular doors, windows and walls, are completed.

Six more buildings at Wilcox Elementary School need to be renovated, Watarai said. The second phase will not begin until the necessary paperwork is finalized and the bidding process is completed.

The wait is troublesome for Watarai, she said, because she has to plan for six additional rooms to house the classes displaced by the renovation of an entire building. She also has portable storage containers sitting on playground space.

“The process is slow,” Watarai said, “but once it gets done, then it is worth it. When the kids came back (from summer vacation), they were so happy. The room looks brighter, bigger. You go in and say, ‘Wow, the room is so nice.’ The atmosphere for the child is better.”

In addition to the major renovations, Watarai is looking forward to the completion of the renovation of the gang toilets slated for this summer, and reroofing that should be coming up in 2006-07, pending funding.

What Watarai would really like to see would be replacement of the toilets, and plumbing and electrical upgrades. A school like Wilcox Elementary that was built in 1958 does not have the electrical and plumbing infrastructure to handle today’s demands. Watarai says she just has to “make do.”

Kaua’i High School Principal Linda L.T. Smith shares Watarai’s “make-do” sentiment. Built in 1914, with a building built in the mid 1930s still in use, Kaua’i High School is the oldest high school on the island.

Smith credits the “ingenuity and perseverance” of members of her custodial staff with keeping up with much of the general repairs.

Two of her custodians attended the custodial program at Kaua’i Community College, a rural-development project through the office of U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawai’i.

The program, which served as a model adopted by other islands, has supplemented the skills of her custodians to do minor repairs, Smith said.

“Other than the daily maintenance of our campus, the other things that we have to make it better for our kids came because of parent-community support,” Smith said.

She points out a bus shelter, weight room and outdoor patio as examples. Eagle Scout projects have also helped, as evidenced by concrete planters that contain plants donated by members of the Class of 1960.

Leaders at Kaua’i High have also benefited from the 3R’s program. In the 3R’s (Repair, Remodel, Restore) program, leaders of businesses and contractors contribute materials and professional labor, and school volunteers, faculty, staff and administrators contribute “sweat equity.”

The 3R’s program enabled Kaua’i High School leaders and maintenance workers to paint the exterior of the Z building.

Smith’s attitude toward R&M is that “if it needs to get done, it’ll get done.” It’s the major projects that Smith feels “cannot be done.”

She would like a “gymnatorium,” with good acoustics, so school band concerts can be held there, something large enough to hold graduation ceremonies.

A few years ago, Smith said she saw the gym walls “move,” and it “scared” her because the bleachers are attached to the walls. She said the remedy was to secure the walls. She said she doesn’t know if she will see a new gym in her lifetime.

Kaua’i High School was also a part of the major-renovations program, began in 2002, to complete renovations of 232 schools statewide which would be at least 25 years old in 2007.

According to Stanley Doi, district engineer at DAGS on Kaua’i, the philosophy then was to focus all the resources on bigger jobs.

According to a 2004 report, “for each dollar in classroom renovations, 70 cents in ‘old’ repairs from (the R&M) backlog has been eliminated.”

With leaders focusing on major renovations, minor repairs were deferred. With Act 51, the state law revamping the delivery of public education in the state, the philosophy has changed.

DAGS officials are contracted under a service-level agreement to do minor repairs requested by school officials via work orders, manage service contracts, and to do construction management. It is a “diminished role,” Doi said.

The DAGS staff of 11 building-maintenance workers, one plumber and two electricians, now has a schedule for servicing schools. School officials seem to be happier with this cycle-maintenance program, Doi said.

  • Cynthia Matsuoka, a Lihu’e-based freelance writer, is the former principal of Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School in Puhi, and writes periodically on education issues exclusively for The Garden Island. Messages for her may be left with Paul C. Curtis, associate editor, at 245-3681, ext. 224, or

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