Lava scare cost DOE millions in school moves

The lava scare last year made for a costly and emotional move for one Hawaii Island elementary school. The end of the crisis wasn’t the end of the spending.

Always Investigating found out exactly what it cost to give a school up for lost, then bring the campus back to life less than a year later.

Last October, as lava threatened Pahoa, students and the community said goodbye to Keonepoko Elementary School, nearly certain it would be consumed by the flow. They had just a few tearful days to get up and go.

“This is an as-soon-as-possible sort of mission,” principal Brandon Gallagher said at the time. “We restart school with students Nov. 10, (2014), so we have a very short timeframe to get this all accomplished.”

The school set up on the grounds at Keaau High in a fleet of portable units that replaced the abandoned elementary campus.

“It was a tragic time for us to put this all together, working with a lot of emotions including the teachers who had to move and create their classrooms very quickly,” said Donalyn Dela Cruz, Hawaii Department of Education spokeswoman.

Temporary Keonepoko school costs

Modular classrooms $3.9 million
Project support $477,000
Technology $230,000
Fire protection $151,000
Tenting, doors, gates $138,000
Electric $53,000
Parking area $48,000
Container rental $28,500
Kitchen moving $20,000
Freight and transport $2,000
Total $5 million

+$1.5 million move back to Keonepoko Elementary

Always Investigating found out it cost more than $5 million to set up that new satellite campus and deal with effects on other area schools.

But lava spared the old Keonepoko Elementary, and that meant the heavy lifting happened all over again, heading back to Keonepoko for the 2015-16 school year that just started.

The return move will cost another $1.5 million, but that bill doesn’t tell the whole story. Besides just moving the desks and chairs back, the whole campus had to be cleaned and painted, water-damaged classrooms repaired, upgrades made to the play court, ramps. Crews even put up new white boards.

It’s a school un-abandoned, getting a new lease on life.

“We’re really, really happy about Keonepoko students returning back to their home school in their home town,” Dela Cruz said. “That’s really wonderful.”

It’s not the end of the story for those 10 portables that served as what they called “Keonepoko North” all last school year. The portables cost nearly $4 million to lease and now the DOE wants to buy them and move them to Oahu to relieve overcrowding on some campuses. Each can hold about 25 students.

“Of course there’s a procurement process that we have to ensure takes place before that, as well as designing,” Dela Cruz said. “There are some schools we have in mind. We have to work with those schools, make sure that the infrastructure can handle this type of module.”

Always Investigating will report back when the DOE decides where it will put those portables, when, and what that purchase and move might cost.

The DOE says it’s submitted for federal disaster reimbursement for a total $6.5 million in school relocation and associated expenses for the Big Island lava near-miss, and hopes to get at least 75 percent of that reimbursed.

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