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Hawaii teachers union says public school budget cuts could result in loss of 1,000 teachers

The Hawaii State Teachers Association has expressed grave concerns about proposed budget cuts that would result in the loss of 1,000 teachers, including special education teachers.

The state Department of Education is scheduled to submit its budget for the upcoming school year to the Board of Education today with targeted reductions in place, as directed by Gov. David Ige, due to revenue shortfalls caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the largest proposed cuts, according to HSTA, are a 10% reduction to the weighted student formula, amounting to about $95 million, and a 9% cut to special education, amounting to about $24.5 million. Under the “weighted student formula,” schools receive a certain amount of funds per student enrolled to cover operating costs.

These cuts give the impression “that we’re only trimming the fat” when, in fact, they would result in severe consequences, said HSTA president Corey Rosenlee.

“This would impact our keiki,” Rosenlee said Wednesday. “Other programs such as art, music, Hawaiian studies, Hawaiian language immersion, career and technical education, physical education all could be reduced or eliminated. Class sizes could also increase and we could see programs such as Advanced Placement electives and gifted and talented, either be reduced or eliminated.”

Other specialist positions are also on the chopping block, said Rosenlee, including educational assistants, security guards and cafeteria workers.

“The DOE needs to specifically explain how many positions will be lost in classrooms and on our school campuses,” he said. “The public and our lawmakers deserve to know the effects of these cuts that they are proposing.”

In response, schools superintendent Christine Kishimoto said in a statement that the agency was tasked with identifying budget reductions of at least 10% for the next two years on top of a $100.2 million reduction to the base budget already sustained this school year.

The result would be a total budget reduction of more than $264 million each school year, starting July 1.

“The HIDOE is a best-practice district, with the lowest spending nationally for general administration,” Kishimoto said. “Therefore, with 94% of the Department’s funds spent directly by or for activities at the school level, these cuts will be felt by students. We will continue to reiterate that an investment in students is an investment in Hawaii’s future.”

HSTA, which represents roughly 13,700 teachers, including librarians and counselors, said the cuts come at a time when members are already faced with other setbacks and challenges, including the pandemic and the governor’s furlough discussions. Now they are faced with potentially losing their jobs.

While the union’s greatest hope is that Congress passes a stimulus package that includes funding for education, the potential long-term impacts of these cuts could result in teachers leaving the profession for good in Hawaii, Rosenlee said.

Other ways to trim the budget, he said, could include the use of fewer school bus drivers, a reduction in the “tens of millions spent each year on standardized testing,” and better stewardship of electricity use on campuses.

“Our keiki and their education are too important to endure these cuts, and we need to in Hawaii make sure that we give our keiki the schools that they deserve,” he said.

If approved by the Board of Education, the proposed fiscal biennium 2021-2023 budget, with reductions of about $165 million at minimum, goes to Ige. The governor in turn submits it to the state Legislature, which will determine department budgets during the 2021 legislative session.

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