Hawaii preschool at center of contentious dispute with state closes its doors

An unlicensed preschool in Hilo ordered to close last fall, partly over lead concerns, is now shut down for good.
Published: Feb. 9, 2023 at 6:43 PM HST|Updated: Feb. 9, 2023 at 7:58 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - An unlicensed preschool in Hilo ordered to close last fall, partly over lead concerns, is now shut down for good.

Staff at Kalamapii Playschool are moving out after the facility’s lease was terminated.

The closure comes despite tremendous support from parents. There was even a push from the judge overseeing the case to get children back in the classroom.

But Hawaii’s Department of Human Services says without more information, it can’t be sure the school is safe.


But in the end, the preschool’s closure wasn’t decided by the state or the court. The owner says she simply couldn’t afford to continue to pursue a license.

In between the unfastening, stacking and boxing of items as the school packed out, some families of former students dropped by Kalamapii Playschool last Wednesday to collect nap time blankets and folders full of art work.

Four-year-old Menko Caldwell took advantage of sitting at a favorite table ― one last time.

“What’s this construction vehicle,” Luke Caldwell asked his son.

Menko replied, “I think that’s a cement mixer.”

“I think you might be right,” Caldwell said.

The once bustling campus is now just a shell of what it was.

“I feel sad. I feel really upset,” said Caldwell. “It should not have ended this way.”

School closure came down to money

The school’s owner, Kim Pierce, says she spent nearly a year working with the state to get a license.

But last September, when it was time to open, she still didn’t have it. She made the decision to bring children on campus anyway. It’s something parents said they knew from the start.

A month later, the court granted an injunction to close the preschool based on state arguments that its teachers were not qualified and kids were being exposed to lead.

Those are claims Pierce disputes.

Over the next four months, the state Department of Human Services and Kalamapii were in court about a half dozen times. “What I want to do is have the parties try to work out something to see how the state can help you get qualified,” said Judge Peter Kubota, during one of the first hearings.

He ordered both sides to work together. He even appointed a mediator to help.

But that license was never issued.

In the end, Pierce says the school’s closure came down to money.

Without kids on campus, she says she was unable to pay for rent.

That’s not the only cost she had to cover.

When asked how much Pierce paid for lead testing she responded, “Approximately $40,000.”

The state said it wanted more information and requested additional testing. Those added costs, Pierce said, would have been up to $50,000.

State: Every applicant has the same rules

Even if Pierce spent that money, there was still no guarantee the state would approve the school’s license.

“We understand there is a need for childcare statewide. However, we can’t cut corners,” said Department of Human Services Childcare Regulation Program Administrator Dayna Luka.

“Every applicant, every licensed provider has to meet the same health and safety rules.”

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

And Pierce contends her campus is safe.

“We have had multiple interior tests that have continued to be safe,” she said.

The state wanted more proof.

Tests administered several weeks after the school’s closure showed lead dust on a couple lanais and in a staff restroom. There was also concern about lead in the soil behind one of the classrooms.

It’s an area the school kept blocked off.

Follow-up cleaning and additional testing documents show an EPA certified group gave the buildings the all clear.

“I felt very confident that there was a competent mitigation for the lead,” said Caldwell. “I feel like that particular issue could’ve been dealt with much easier and more efficiently than it was.”

Shortage of child care persists

Pierce said she’s not sure about her next steps.

When asked if she planned to try and open another school Pierce responded, “That is to be determined.”

The state says it would be open to working with Pierce in the future at a new site.

“We would work with her just like we would work with any other applicant during this licensing process,” Luka said.

In the meantime, the need for early childhood education on Hawaii Island persists.

Five months after Kalamapii’s closure, Menko has yet to find another school. It’s a position dozens of his classmates are in, too. The school has until the end of February to pack up and be out of the buildings.