The Department of Education says it needs $19 million in emergency funding from the Legislature to cover shortfalls in its school lunch and bus transportation programs, or officials warned that meal prices might go up and some bus routes could be eliminated.
The two programs, among the department’s largest operations, are facing shortfalls for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, Amy Kunz, the department’s chief financial officer, told the Board of Education on Tuesday.
The food services branch, which serves about 100,000 lunches a day, needs an extra $9.9 million for operations this year.
Schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said state funding for the program dropped off three years ago while costs have steadily increased because of inflation. She said the department has had to eat into cash reserves generated from students who pay for meals and federal reimbursements.
"We’ve used that up, essentially," she said of the reserves. "We always need to have a positive ending balance so we can start the next year and pay for all the things that are needed to get the cafeterias up and running."
The additional funds would bring total food services spending this year to $107.6 million, which already includes $19.1 million from the state, $25 million in meal revenues and $53 million in federal funding.
BOE Budget Chairman Brian De Lima asked for a backup plan if the funding doesn’t come through.
"We’re going to have to take a very hard look at what we can do because we do need to provide lunches," Matayoshi said. "We are considering what we can do in terms of a school lunch price increase."
A 2009 state law requires the department to set meal prices at a level "not less than half" the cost of preparing the meal. But the DOE hasn’t raised prices since 2011.
Under current prices, elementary students pay $2.25 for lunch, and high-schoolers are charged $2.50. The cost is 40 cents for students whose families qualify for reduced-price meals. (A family of three, for example, cannot earn more than $42,106 a year to qualify for the reduced rate, while a family of three earning $29,588 or less qualifies for free meals.)
About 47 percent of public school children qualify for free or reduced lunch. The federal government reimburses the state up to $3.55 for free lunches served and up to $3.15 for reduced-priced lunches served.
BOE Chairman Don Horner pointed out that the department has yet to implement recommendations made last year in an internal audit that found an "unacceptable" lack of oversight, monitoring and accountability of the food services program.
"If we ask for additional revenue, we also need to hold ourselves accountable to ensure that we’re efficiently managing those revenues," Horner said. "Based on that audit, we don’t have a full handle on our food service expenses."
Meanwhile, the DOE’s student transportation branch — which is being overhauled after being singled out in multiple audits for escalating costs — is facing a $9.3 million shortfall this year.
The school bus program — expected to cost $65.4 million this year — serves about 39,000 general-education students in addition to free curb-to-curb service required for about 4,000 special-education students.
Program costs have dropped from a high of nearly $75 million in 2012, the year a state auditor’s report found general funds spent on student transportation had nearly tripled over the preceding five years.
The auditor concluded the DOE had essentially lost control of its school bus program, failing to address anti-competitive behavior among contractors and allowing costs to dramatically increase. A subsequent DOE-commissioned study called for a complete redesign of the student transportation branch to rein in costs.
In 2012 lawmakers refused to fund the skyrocketing costs, and cut $17 million from the program. Service to some 2,000 students was slashed as a result.
The DOE has since launched a pilot initiative on Oahu that involves revamped vendor contracts and new technology that collects real-time data on routes and riders for the first time. The changes are expected to produce $5 million in recurring annual savings starting this school year but are not enough to cover operations this year.
Kunz said the DOE benefited from a one-time boost in excess federal Impact Aid funds that were used to make up shortfalls in the last two years.
"The gap going foward, that’s a funding gap, not an issue of expenditures," said Tom Platt of Management Partnership Services, the company that performed the student transportation audit for the DOE.
De Lima instructed the department to work on budget scenarios that identify bus routes that might need to be cut if additional funds can’t be obtained from the state.
Sen. Jill Tokuda, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, called the shortfalls major concerns.
"Clearly, simply raising school lunch prices and cutting routes — those are not viable options for our families," she said. "Feeding our students and getting them to school are fundamental services. But we can’t do a good job if these programs are out of control in terms of cost."
Rep. Roy Takumi, chairman of the House Education Committee, said in general reducing the DOE’s budget tends to be controversial because of impacts to students. He said it’s too early in the budget process to know how the DOE’s requests will fare.
The BOE on Tuesday also approved a two-year budget request for the upcoming 2015-17 biennium, which will be submitted to the Governor’s Office next week.
The department is seeking an additional $74 million in general funds for the fiscal year that begins July 1, on top of the approximately $1.4 billion appropriated for operations next year.
The funds would mostly go toward increased costs in food services, student transportation, utilities and per-pupil funding, as well as expansion of a one-to-one digital device initiative to provide laptops for students.
The DOE’s capital improvements budget for next year seeks $406 million for statewide projects and upgrades, including $15 million for its so-called heat abatement program, which includes funds for a solar-powered air-conditioning pilot project at Campbell High School. The budget also includes a $90 million request for construction of a second middle school for Kapolei.