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DOE cuts call for flexibility

LAST UPDATED: 6:27 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

Facing an implacable $32.8 million budget shortfall, the state Department of Education has been more aggressive in taking its cutting, streamlining and reorganizing efforts into the once-sacrosanct classroom.

Nearly $8 million has been slashed from the per-pupil allotment — "the weighted student formula" — that is the financial foundation of classroom instruction. The DOE eliminated direct funding to learning centers, a painful cut to programs that enriched a student's education beyond core subjects. Adult education took a $5 million hit. And most recently, the DOE reduced extra funding for 64 smaller schools so it could redistribute $16.9 million across the system.

The adult education program cuts are unfortunate but logical. Education is valuable at any age, and popular courses such as English as a second language and adult basic education courses help a significant number of people integrate into society. But they fall outside the DOE's core mission of educating students through high school. And in this budgetary climate, such courses can no longer be free. It makes more sense to apply scarce resources where it's most in demand — those between 16 and 24 seeking to get a GED or competency-based diploma. Other adult classes should be self-sustaining, through fees and other financing methods, like student loans.

The cuts to the 64 smaller schools present a thornier problem. Small schools generally cost more to operate — their fixed costs, including administrative staff requirements and physical overhead, are high even if their enrollment isn't. Small schools get additional funds to make up for this problem. But the DOE has lowered the enrollment levels that define a small school: From 500 to 300 students for elementary schools; from 600 to 450 for middle schools; and from 1,000 to 750 for high schools.

This will free up $16.9 million, which the DOE will redistribute systemwide through the weighted student formula, focusing on the needs of the individual student rather than the school. This should help average-sized schools, those that don't benefit from enrollment gains but aren't small enough to qualify for extra funding. But the 64 smaller schools will have to manage with less.

Unfortunately, a principal's ability to manage a small school's fixed costs are limited. Administrative requirements and union contracts can be inflexible, so it's understandable that a principal would resort to fundraising to make up for lost money. For example, Pearl City Highlands, one of the 64 schools, will lose an estimated $35,000. Its principal, Mike Nakasato, has said he will reach out to parents to top last year's contributions of $20,000.

That's all well and good, but the DOE can't base its budget projections on parents selling chili tickets. The newly minted Board of Education, with its stated ambition of making the DOE more efficient, should focus on finding new ways to give individual schools more autonomy and flexibility in managing their costs. Moving more restricted programs into the weighted student formula allocations is one way; another is renegotiating labor agreements to give principals more authority to structure their staffs to meet the unique needs of their schools.

The classroom may no longer be a refuge from budget cuts, but the DOE and the BOE must still ensure that students get a good education through high school. That much hasn't changed.

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