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Hawaii school board approves budget with cuts that principals call crippling

A proposal to slice 10% from Hawaii’s public schools budget for the next two years — on top of the 6% cut already imposed this fiscal year — was approved Thursday by the Board of Education.

Board members voted reluctantly, saying they had no choice but to comply with directives from Gov. David Ige’s administration for what they called “draconian” cuts. But they stressed that the proposed Department of Education 2021-23 operating budget was just a starting point.

And they urged the public to join them in working with the Legislature to come up with alternatives and shield students, whose education already has suffered due to the pandemic.

“We have to do our due diligence, but we cannot in the long run make these cuts because these cuts are talking about teachers in the classroom and they’re the most important people to our students,” said board member Kili Namau‘u. “And if we want to get ahead in this economy and not be so dependent on tourism, etc., in the future we need to invest in public education.”

The DOE budget document was due to the governor today, and he will submit his version of the overall state budget by Dec. 21 to the Legislature, which ultimately will determine what gets funded.

The department already has absorbed a $100.2 million cut to its budget this fiscal year, or roughly 6% of the total general fund budget of $1.67 billion. The proposed biennial budget reduces general funds by another $164 million in each of the next two fiscal years, or 10%.

Principal Gay Kong of Keolu Elementary, who has been crunching the numbers, testified at the board’s virtual meeting about how that would affect her campus in Keolu Hills.

“These cuts that I see can be best described as crippling, especially for our small school,” she said. “We would need to cut two teacher positions, and the end result will leave us with four teachers to serve seven grade levels.”

“We will lose the academic coach; that’s besides the two teaching positions,” she added. “Yet still with those severe cuts we will not have funds left over for instructional materials, sanitation, supplies or even toilet paper.”

The proposed $164 million reduction each year includes a cut of $95 million, or 10% of funds, in the weighted student formula, which distributes funds to schools based on enrollment and students’ needs. Another $24 million would be cut from the special-education budget, about 9%.

Just how many jobs would be lost at the school level is not yet clear because principals have two more weeks to complete their academic and financial plans and figure out how they would absorb the reductions.

Principal Scott Moore of Waialua Elementary said 95% of his school budget goes to pay employees who provide educational services to students, and any substantial cut will hurt students and lead to the loss of effective and experienced educators.

“I am afraid that Hawaii public schools are in a downward spiral,” he testified. “We suffered a drastic drop in enrollment because of COVID and the state’s disjointed response to it. Now we are going to have major cuts to school budgets, which will probably prompt more defections from public schools. … The students who remain behind with less support will be the most vulnerable students who need the support most.”

“Schools are not like projects or new programs that you can delay or just cancel,” he added. “It took a great deal of hard work to improve Hawaii public schools and student achievement. It will take years to recover from major and possibly permanent budget cuts.”

One new legislator who attended the virtual meeting offered some hope, pledging her wholehearted support to preserve funding for public schools.

“As the Education Committee incoming vice chair, I believe it is my responsibility to prevent these draconian cuts from happening,” said state Rep. Jeanne Kapela (D, Kailua-Kona to Naalehu). “What’s before you today would create educational chaos. … I do promise to be an eager partner with you in resolving the department’s fiscal dilemma.”

Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said the budget review started with centralized services, which include state administration and instructional support, personnel, fiscal management, information technology, student transportation, testing and more.

But such centralized expenditures account altogether for just 5% of the budget. The proposed budget would eliminate 102 positions at the state level and make substantial cuts in those centrally funded programs. But that falls far short of the mandated reductions of 10% to 15% of the entire budget.

“There is no way to avoid impacts at the school level, for students not to feel these cuts because of how large these cuts are,” Kishimoto said. “The number of positions that we will potentially see coming from the school and complex level will be well over 1,000 positions potentially, and there will be a number of teacher positions very likely.”

Catherine Payne, a veteran public school educator who, like other board members, serves as a volunteer, said the common perception that the state administration is bloated is far from reality.

“One of the things I really get frustrated about is the comment about the department being so top-heavy it is about to tip over,” she said. “We are the lowest in the nation in overhead costs, primarily because we are able to consolidate services as one state agency.”

“I personally feel despair more than hope as I think about who will suffer over the next several years,” she said. “The ones who will suffer the most are the poorest. Poverty is the single biggest correlation to lower achievement. … More families now have slipped across the line into poverty because of this pandemic.”

Kishimoto’s memo on the proposed budget, including Attachment C, which details in plain language proposed cuts in each program, is available online at 808ne.ws/opbudget.

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