Judge orders preschool to shut down amid contentious dispute with state

The decision comes amid a dire shortage of child care options on Hawaii Island.
Published: Oct. 20, 2022 at 4:56 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 20, 2022 at 6:41 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Kalamapii Play School is a bustling and bright new preschool near downtown Hilo. Some 44 pre-K students are enrolled and more are on a waiting list.

“It’s such a vibrant area,” said Kim Pierce, Kalamapii Play School executive director. “I cannot wait for the field trips to start for our kids.”

But when it comes to the future, any kind of planning is complicated.

That’s because on Sept. 27, the state filed an injunction to shut the preschool down a little more than a month after it opened over claims its teachers aren’t qualified and kids are being exposed to lead. They’re accusations the school’s director adamantly disputes.

But on Thursday, a judge granted the state’s request.

The dispute is leaving scores of Hawaii Island parents in limbo at a time when child care is incredibly difficult to find ― and underscores the significant bureaucratic hurdles child care and preschool facilities have to entering the industry despite the ongoing shortage.

Earlier this month, Pierce invited HNN to Kalamapii Play School for a tour of the campus.

In an interview, she was asked if the children are safe. “Of course they’re safe,” she responded. “We would have never brought them on campus.”

She added that all lead issues on the property had been abated.

As for the qualified teachers, Pierce says she’s spent the past year looking for staff that meet the state’s standards.

“They don’t exist,” she said.

A dire community need

So how did the school wind up in this position?

It’s an issue state Sen. Laura Acasio, a former teacher, has followed closely.

“Our community has an incredible need for early childhood education. Preschools, child care of any form at this point,” Acasio said.

She says Pierce reached out to her over the summer asking for help getting her child care license. By that time, eight months had passed since she first submitted an application to the state Department of Human Services.

HNN has confirmed Pierce’s application is the only one currently being reviewed on Hawaii Island. When we asked DHS how long licensing typically takes, surprisingly, officials told us they do not have an answer to that question.

Meanwhile, Acasio says what she’s seen of the process is concerning.

“The lack of communication is really a huge component,” she said.

Even the senator says she had a hard time getting answers on where the application stands. “For the most part it’s been crickets,” she said.

Pierce says after delaying the school’s start date two weeks she made the decision to open Kalamapii without a license on Aug. 22.

It’s something the state warned her repeatedly not to do.

“All interior paint was remediated prior to the first day of school,” Pierce said. “We have a school to run. We have a community need to fill.

“And so we’re doing everything we can to show our work.”

On Oct. 10 the state Attorney General’s Office filed a second injunction order.

Court records claim Pierce only provided DHS with some of the necessary paperwork showing lead paint on the historic buildings had been properly abated.

The filing went on to say the facility opened without remediating the “grossly contaminated” soil behind the school house.

It’s an area Pierce says was blocked off so children couldn’t get to it, adding the problem has since been completely abated.

“We used two different companies,” Pierce said. “They do have EPA certification. That’s what licensing wanted to see.”

Struggle to find teachers

The issue with lead isn’t unique to Kalamapii Play School. Environmental Hazard Management plans have been established with at least 18 other schools on the east side of Hawaii Island.

But contamination concerns are just part of the problem.

The state also claims the school’s teachers aren’t qualified.

Pierce says she only needs two of them, but that it’s been impossible to find anyone on Hawaii Island who’s available that also meets DHS standards.

And she’s been looking for a year.

“I have interviewed 13 teacher-qualified folks,” she said. “Eight of them are retired. One of them runs an illegal daycare in her own home. The other is not medically fit. And another was accused of child abuse.”

DHS says there are four ways a person can qualify to become a preschool teacher.

Three of them require a bachelor’s degree. The person also needs to have six months early childhood education work experience and in some cases additional credits.

A person can also qualify by obtaining a Child Development Associate Credential, and getting one year supervised teaching experience in an early childhood program.

While the staff at Kalamapii don’t meet those standards, Acasio says she knows 90% of them personally ― and calls all of them incredible teachers.

“Do I feel like the facility is built to be an absolute top notch child care facility and preschool? Yes!” she said.

That foundation is made up of people like Janet Bibilone.

“I have been teaching for 40 years,” said Bibilone. “I didn’t finish my college and that’s the problem.”

Pierce says she’s spent months going back and forth with the state trying to get Bibilone and three other staff members waivers that would legally qualify them to fill the school’s teaching positions.

But court documents allege DHS still needs more information from Pierce about each candidate.

Parents plead for a solution

In the meantime, parents say the school has been very transparent about everything and fear what will happen if the state forces it to permanently close.

“I would be broken,” said Lori Silva-Fernandez. “I don’t know what I would do.”

Her daughter, Olivia, is a special needs student. She was born with a rare chromosomal abnormality.

Silva-Fernandez says she tried to get her 4-year-old into two other preschools, but they were all full.

Silva-Fernandez adds in the short time her daughter has been going to Kalamapii, Olivia’s speech has blossomed.

It’s a skill she needed to work on before starting kindergarten next year.

“She’s come a long way. Her physical mobility is improving. Her fine motor is improving,” said Silva-Fernandez.

As Hawaii’s need for early childhood education grows, Pierce questions why more isn’t being done to simplify the licensing process.

“We need to have a system that’s transparent and easy to follow,” she said. “It shouldn’t be tricky. I shouldn’t have to guess.”

Because of the lawsuit, DHS officials couldn’t answer questions specific to this case.

But but they did defend the process.

“The department doesn’t try to block people from getting a license. Or try to create roadblocks,” said Child Care Program technical assistant Dayna Luka. “We are just wanting to ensure the health and safety of the children. Ensure that an applicant is meeting those rules for minimum health and safety so we can issue a license.”

Pierce is scheduled to be back in court Tuesday, and that will be the first time she presents her side of the story to a judge. She’s currently being fined $1,500 a day for operating without a license.

Meanwhile, parents are lining up to secure their children a spot at the school.

The current wait list is two and a half years.