Lahainaluna stadium latest to face slow-tracked school project hurdles

Lahainaluna High School

KHON2 has told you about opening delays for a couple of big education projects: a library at Waialua Elementary and a field at McKinley High School.

Now, Always Investigating has uncovered another one affecting the entire West Maui community.

What public school wouldn’t want a new library, athletic field or stadium? Yet time and again, these signature projects run on for years longer than anticipated.

More than 10 years ago, a new stadium was envisioned for Lahainaluna High School on Maui. The project is finally just about at the end, but what’s holding it up from getting an opening day?

“We thought we would have our football games here,” said Lahainaluna principal Emily De Costa, “and that was exciting because we usually travel to the other side.”

That drive all the way to Wailuku and back was supposed to be pau last fall.

“That didn’t happen. Then we said maybe our homecoming game, and that didn’t happen,” De Costa said. “Then it was soccer and that didn’t happen. Then January, that didn’t happen. Now it’s May. We wanted graduation really bad, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.”

The Lahainaluna stadium is the latest school project that somehow got stuck in slow motion, similar to Waialua Elementary School’s library, which was four years in the making, and McKinley High School’s softball field, which took two years to build plus two years just to approve for use.

The Maui stadium idea sparked 10 years ago with money flowing by 2007 and construction within a few years, but a projected opening day already in the past.

Jeff Rogers of the Lahainaluna High School Foundation explained some of the bumps in the road.

“From the time this was originally designed in 2007 and then when we were ready to build out in 2014, the building code changed,” he said.

That meant a redesign, even a doubling of required bathroom stalls. There were differences of expert opinion on this or that kind of fire system.

Then there were the many miles between the Department of Education’s facilities branch in Honolulu and the project team on Maui.

“There have just been things that have occurred through no fault of anyone’s that just happened, many surprises,” Rogers said.

Always Investigating asked, could anyone have seen them coming if there had been any different way of working on the project?

“Hard to say, hard to Monday morning quarterback that,” Rogers said. “Of course, everybody thinks their project is special. Looking back, it would have been nice to have a little more direct contact with the decision makers in Honolulu.”

The project is special because of its major donor, Sue D. Cooley, a part-time resident from the mainland who happened to come to a Lahainaluna playoff football game with a school alum, a game the Lunas lost.

“The team was exiting by the boy’s locker room and they were singing the alma mater,” Rogers said. “She was so impressed with the way they handled themselves and be able to have that kind of sportsmanship, and she just asked, what can she do?”

The alum mentioned the stadium vision and she pledged $1 million. She went on to give another $6.5 million over the years, shaving the state’s share to just $1.7 million in grants.

“It benefited the state and the taxpayers, you and I,” De Costa said. “It doesn’t come out of our pockets.”

If the DOE had done the project, De Costa said their estimate would have been closer to $17 million, nearly double the $9 million that the private foundation was able to do the project for. But the DOE still had to approve all the ins and outs of the project while the foundation did the legwork.

“This is the biggest private-public partnership that they had experienced,” Rogers said, “so we both had a giant learning curve.”

We asked the DOE why things can’t move more quickly, whether it’s Waialua, McKinley, Lahaina or your neighborhood school?

“In this particular case, we have been learning lessons from a public-private partnership. In other cases, we are hampered sometimes by the fact that with the low-bid process, we can be left with contractors who have not been fully capable of fulfilling their roles,” explained assistant superintendent Dann Carlson.

“Since I have come on board five months ago, we have begun reviewing where we can be more efficient, identify gaps and improve our process. We are preparing to make some changes to the process,” he added. “We know we need more project managers. We have been actively recruiting project managers in the positions of architects and engineers through our human resources office and will be at an upcoming job fair.”

“Especially when someone is giving us a building, I am sure they are trying every which way they can,” De Costa said, “but like everything else, when you are in a bureaucracy, yes there’s a lot of red tape.”

There will be a few more sticky spots ahead. Maui County lists a slew of open inspection items. The stadium’s 3,000 seats have to sit empty until all the sections get certificates of occupancy.

Rogers says Cooley “probably wouldn’t be too happy (with all the delays). She’s been very patient.”

Always Investigating asked, if this place could get its final inspections in the coming days, what would they like to see happen?

“I would love to see graduation here,” Rogers said.

“I would like to say yes, but there are so many logistics that have to go on,” De Costa said.

So for now, the graduation ceremony is slated to be held just up above, at Boarder’s Field near the dormitories, named for the nearby boarders. Lahainaluna is one of two Hawaii public schools that boards students.

Boarder’s Field is where this oldest public high school west of the Mississippi — founded in 1831 — has had many a graduation ceremony, followed always by the lighting of the “L” on the mountaintop.

“This graduation class will have memories no matter where it’s at,” De Costa said. “Some of them want it there, and yet some of them want it here. There’s mixed feelings among the students. No matter where graduation is, it will be either their first here or their last at Boarder’s Field.”

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