HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Small groups like exercise classes and Cub Scout troops across the state are finding themselves caught in the fallout over a lawsuit against the Department of Education.
The lawsuit claims five large churches have underpaid the state more than $5 million in rent, so prices are going up for small groups as a result.
A Jazzercise class met for the final time at an Oahu elementary school last Wednesday night. The class is moving out after more than four years because of much higher rents.
Exercise classes that rent public school facilities report their rental fees have tripled or quadrupled, going from about $35 for a one-hour rental at a cafeteria to roughly $135. The higher prices make it difficult to break even when they charge $5 or $7 a person per class.
"It's kind of too bad for small groups like ours that can't afford to stay at the school," said Mele Pochereva, a participant in the Jazzercise class that ended last Wednesday.
Public school administrators tell Hawaii News Now that principals have been asked to review all their current rental agreements because of the lawsuit that claimed large churches aren't paying their fair share of school rentals.
Principals said they have been reminded to be sure they are charging proper rent, utilities and janitorial fees.
In some cases, sources said Zumba classes were allowed to pay just utility costs before the rent crackdown, because they offered free classes for school faculty and staff.
But those "side deals" are no longer allowed in some schools, so classes like these are being canceled, reducing their frequency or raising their rates. It's unknown how many classes have been affected, since each principal handles rental contracts for their school and the DOE does not track rentals from its central office, a DOE spokesman said.
Students of exercise classes said they will miss the convenience.
"It means I have to travel about twice as far to get to my classes because right now I live about five minutes from the school," Pochereva said.
The higher rents have had the same effect on some Cub Scout and Boy Scout troops.
"For many of them, that's caused them to have to look for other places to meet," said Jeff Sulzbach, CEO of the Aloha Council Boy Scouts of America, which has 12,000 scouts on four islands. "We've had a number of churches welcome our scout troops in. Some businesses have opened their doors. And so we're trying to find other places. The best place is still the school."
Sulzbach said about one third of their younger-level Cub Scouts meet in public schools.
Each scout troop is independent and must meet its own costs, he did not have an estimate available of how many troops have been forced to find other places to gather. Some scout masters are meeting with principals to try to find a compromise, Sulzbach said.
"We see it not as an us-against-them, but how do we work together to find the best solution for our school district leaders as well as for our scouts," Sulzbach added.
Exercise class leaders were reluctant to speak on camera or for the record about the changes because some of them still have cut-rate deals at certain public schools and don't want to lose them.
Sources said younger, less-experienced principals are being more hard-line about enforcing higher rents while more experienced principals are more likely to allow cut-rate deals if they trust the group leaders.
At one school, the number of weekly Zumba classes went from three to one and a Judo instructor also quit holding his class, a source said.
At another school, a source said one exercise class leader raised her per-person charge from $5 to $7, but she still lost $35 for one class so she's planning to find another location to hold the class, another source said.
According to rental information posted online by the Department of Education, hourly rates at the smallest cafeterias (3,600 square feet or smaller) are $21, plus $4.55 an hour on Oahu for utilities and about $52 for a two-hour minimum charge for a custodian to open and close the facility.
For the largest cafeterias at public schools (6,601 square feet and bigger), the hourly rate rental is $43 and the per-hour utility charge on Oahu is $9.10. The $52 custodian minimum charge would also apply.