Gubernatorial candidate James "Duke" Aiona, in outlining his education platform recently, echoed a perception that the state Department of Education is top-heavy and that not enough of its budget reaches the classroom.
But education officials counter that annual spending at the school complex and state office level – totaling $75 million annually – makes up just 6 percent of the department’s $1.3 billion operating budget.
DOE budget documents show that 72 percent of its operating budget – or about $934 million – is spent by principals at the school level. An additional 22 percent is spent on "centralized services" for schools, including student transportation, food service, human resources operations and financial record-keeping. Those costs total $286 million.
James Brese, DOE chief financial officer, said it is an "urban myth" that DOE spends too much on administrative costs.
"It’s not like the money is being spent on lavish furnishings at the state office," he said.
Even so, some say more money could go directly to principals.
Earlier this month, in unveiling his education policy, Aiona said he would make sure schools get 90 cents out of every dollar that goes to the Department of Education.
The Republican candidate said he believes about 50 cents of each dollar now goes to schools, and he called for an independent audit of the Department of Education.
Campaign spokesman Travis Taylor said different calculations on how much is being spent at the school level depend on what is being counted as directly benefiting schools and students. He did not provide the calculations used by the campaign by press time.
But he did say that Aiona believes principals should be the "chief education officers" for their schools and should have greater flexibility on spending for everything from utilities to food services to hiring.
Others said they understand why "centralized services" for schools are headquartered at the department level, and agree most principals would not want to be in charge of them.
Corey Rosenlee, a parent of a 6-year-old at Holomua Elementary School and a member of Save Our Schools, an advocacy group, said the way to get more funding to schools is increasing legislative appropriations for education – not shipping more services to the school level.
"Are we going to stop recruitment?" he said. "When they ask for standardized curriculum, who’s going to be doing that standardized curriculum?"
According to DOE financial documents, spending at the school level has remained at about 70 percent over the last several years. DOE officials also point out that administrative-level programs have taken relatively bigger budget hits in the fiscal downturn than have schools.
In the upcoming school year, funding to schools is down 3 percent – or $33.2 million – from the 2007 school year. Funding for centralized services is down 11 percent, or $34 million.
Meanwhile, funding for state and complex-area functions is down 31 percent and 21 percent, respectively, a $30.3 million funding decline.