The state Department of Education learned Thursday morning that it would not have to reduce its overall budget by as much as it originally anticipated for the upcoming school year.
Gov. David Ige, who originally directed all state departments, including the DOE, to reduce their overall budgets by 10% to deal with revenue shortfalls resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, on Thursday told the DOE it would be approximately $123 million less than originally anticipated.
“Due to the pandemic and subsequent reduction in revenues, we anticipated that the Department of Education, which is the largest general funded department, would have to take a 10% cut to its budget,” said Ige in a statement. “However, with additional federal funds and more optimistic revenue projections by the Council on Revenues, we are able to reset the department’s target reductions to 2.5%. This represents about $123 million dollars that we can now restore to our public-school classrooms so our students can be set on the path to prosperity and success.”
The Board of Education, which was scheduled to discuss the original impact of the reduced 2021-2023 fiscal biennium budget on schools, welcomed the news from schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto.
With the slashing of $164 million from the budget at the 10% level, a school-by-school presentation showed the potential loss of more than 1,000 department positions, including about 800 teachers and special- education teachers, librarians and counselors, along with educational assistants and clerks.
It would also have cut out enrichment classes, physical education, art, gifted and talented programs, robotics and numerous other programs.
At Kapolei High, for instance, approximately 30 part-time teachers would be eliminated, along with early college program courses and a school security attendant.
At Mililani High, Principal Fred Murphy testified about “gut-wrenching” decisions on how to make the cuts, which would have included six teaching positions and 16 special-educational assistant positions, leaving the school with just one, along with the loss of transportation funds for athletics and music.
Even with the reprieve, however, budget cuts are still looming.
The DOE still faces a significant budget shortfall, including the $41 million left over, in addition to the loss of $100.2 million imposed for this fiscal year.
Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said even with the revised budget, some 700 teachers could still potentially be laid off.
The question now is how the DOE will rework its budget, and where its priorities will be.
“This is an extremely challenging time for the state with a lot of uncertainty and unknowns,” said Kishimoto in a statement. “I want to sincerely thank Gov. Ige and the Department of Budget & Finance for their continued support and willingness to work collaboratively with the Department to prioritize public education. We know there are competing priorities and tough decisions to be made, and we look forward to continued conversation on how we best support our students and protect public education.”
She added, “As we move through the legislative process, we are committed to restoring funding closest to our students and schools, and finding solutions to other shortfall areas to stabilize school operations.”
Some of the board’s preliminary discussions Thursday revolved around whether the funds could be reallocated to keep staff and special-education teachers in place at public schools.
In light of the changes, subject to approval by the state Legislature, the board’s committee on finance and infrastructure decided Thursday to defer action on the DOE’s plan for the use of $183.6 million in federal relief funds allotted to Hawaii from the Education Stabilization Fund.
The committee leader said it would be prudent for the department to change its recommendations to reflect the new numbers, and to allow the public time to give its input on them.
Much of Thursday’s public testimony came from teachers opposed to the budget line item in the DOE’s plan to use $53 million out of $183.6 million in federal relief funds for tutoring services to help students who are falling behind due to the pandemic.
This cannot be justified, they said, when qualified teachers — the ones who cultivate relationships with students in the classroom — are being cut. Nor would it be fair to teachers paying for supplies out of their own pockets.
According to the proposal, personalized tutoring services would be offered to fifth to eighth graders who are two or more years behind in reading and math to help them transition to high school.
Kishimoto told the board she was not proposing the hiring of tutors over teachers, and that short-term funds would be used to bring in tutors for students who are two or more years behind. Research has shown one-on-one tutoring to be the most effective strategy in helping these students, she said, who need help beyond the classroom.
The HSTA is also opposed to the proposed tutoring services, which it says is an unnecessary luxury during a budget crisis.
The HSTA earlier this week also said the budget cuts and layoffs proposed by the governor and school superintendent violate federal rules that come with the use of stimulus funds.
Those rules — in place to ensure federal funds are used for their intended purpose — say a state must continue to pay its employees and contractors during disruptions related to the coronavirus and maintain support for elementary and secondary education proportional to the three fiscal years prior to COVID-19.
Even with the restoration of $123 million, Rosenlee said, the state is not in compliance with these requirements. Based on preliminary estimates, he said the state needs $170 million to $180 million in its budget for public schools to maintain required levels of support.