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Hawaii News

Hard times not over for state’s schools

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Marialena Kalamau brought daughter Alissa Fruean to yesterday's Board of Education meeting to testify on behalf of children with disabilities. Alissa has been diagnosed with brain damage.

Public school students will not see teacher furlough days in the coming school year, but they will feel the pinch of budget cuts in other ways, Board of Education members warned.

The board approved an operating budget yesterday for the 2010-11 school year that includes $1.25 billion from the state’s general fund and the elimination of about 400 mostly vacant positions. The bulk of the positions – about 230 – are in special education.

Eliminating the positions will save the department about $15 million and could include some layoffs.

DOE officials could not say how many people would be laid off, however, because some could be shifted to other programs.

Eliminating the vacant positions saves money because the department has to budget for them, though they cannot fill them because of a hiring freeze.

Advocates and parents worry the positions will not be restored once the budget picture improves.

Marialena Kalamau, a parent of a special-needs child, urged the department yesterday to use caution in its cuts to special education and asked officials to find other ways to save money.

"I’m here on behalf of all families with children who have disabilities," she said at the special board meeting. The cuts are "detrimental to our children."

Schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said the department is "trying to minimize the impact" of cuts to special-education programs.

The $15 million in cuts was originally going to be directed only at special-education programs, mostly by eliminating positions. Officials decided to spread the cuts to other departments, however – a move applauded by the board.

Still, board members said the cuts are the latest hit for a department scrambling to meet federal and state mandates in tough fiscal times. Some worried about what the cumulative effects of the cuts will be on schools, and urged the department to closely monitor student progress, especially in special-education classrooms.

"The budget cuts are getting so deep that there is a direct or indirect impact on schools," board member Breene Harimoto said yesterday at the meeting. "The fact of the matter is that everyone’s hurting."

Board member Margaret Cox added, "None of us want to cut anywhere, but we’re at the point where we don’t have a choice."

The department says it has been hit with $141 million in general fund reductions to its operating budget for the upcoming school year.

In all, the department estimates its state funding has been slashed by about $503 million over the 2009-2011 biennium – through cuts, budget restrictions, a hiring freeze, reductions in nonlabor costs and other cost-saving measures.

The dire budget situation last school year was most notable for setting in motion 17 teacher furlough days, which left Hawaii public school students with the shortest school year in the nation and spurred widespread criticism, including from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The furloughs ended in May, thanks to a deal that included $57 million from the hurricane relief fund and a $10 million, interest-free line of credit from local banks.

Garrett Toguchi, board chairman, said he worries that all the cuts made in bad times will not be undone when things get better. "As you can see, people are starting to get used to the cuts," he said.

To help offset the hit to schools, legislators in the last session put an extra $22 million into the weighted student formula (even as big cuts were being made elsewhere to the department’s budget).

Schools can use that money at their discretion, diverting it to their biggest needs, and officials hope it will help alleviate some of the pain from budget cuts.

"It means they have to prioritize," said state Sen. Norman Sakamoto, chairman of the education and housing committee.

James Brese, Department of Education chief financial officer, pointed out the budget cuts have largely been directed at administrative and complex-area offices, not at the school level.

The funding to complex area offices has declined 20 percent from 2007, while administrative-level funding declined 30 percent. Funding to schools makes up about 72 percent of the department’s budget and has declined 3 percent from 2007.

But Brese said all the cuts, mainly to support staff and offices, will no doubt be felt at the school level. "We believe it will have an impact," he said. "We just don’t know to what extent."


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