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Despite unanimously approving the Hawaii State Department of Education’s operating budget for the 2021–23 fiscal biennium Thursday, Board of Education members were not happy with the department’s proposed $164 million budget reduction.

“We can't make these cuts,” said Christine “Kili” Namauʻu, BOE member, Maui County. “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. If we want to get ahead in this economy and not be so dependent on tourism and etc. in the future, we need to invest in public education. We were at a deficit already from the beginning, before the pandemic, and we as a society and in Hawaii need to invest in education. You should not be looking at the department to do these cuts. We have to figure out a better way.”

“This is a terrible time for public education,” BOE Chair Catherine Payne said. “I have never seen such a bleak path ahead as we have now.

“The reality of what is happening to our state and to our schools is devastating,” Payne said. “I personally feel despair more than hope on most days as I think about who will suffer the most over the next several years, because this is not one year that we're talking about. The governor has talked about at least four years of this level of cuts. Those who will suffer the most are the poorest children and families who are already suffering, and they’ve consistently been reflected in our achievement gaps.”

“We have been very clear that we wanted the least impact on classrooms as possible, however the cuts are so deep that it's impossible not to affect that,” Payne said.

Proposed budget already headed to governor’s office

BOE Vice Chair Kenneth Uemura, who chairs the board’s Finance and Infrastructure Committee, and Bruce Voss, the committee vice chair, were included in discussions as the department formulated its operating budget to reflect the severe cuts directed by Gov. David Ige’s administration.

However, Uemura told the committee, any significant changes suggested Thursday would not be incorporated in the budget submitted to the governor, which was due Friday, Dec. 4.

“The state budget and finance office has indicated that they will be using the operating budget and CIP (capital improvement program), R&M (repair and maintenance) list that is on the agenda today to include in the governor's budget,” Uemura said. “How does this impact the review and approval process of the operating budget that we are undertaking at this meeting? This means that the public and the board are deprived of having any significant input to the budget submitted to the governor.”

Board member Voss explained, “by law, the board does have the obligation to approve a budget, whether we like it or not—and I don't like it, and none of the members here like what has been presented to us.

“But I want to be clear,” Voss said, “this is just the first step, the very first step. Our final budget decisions are made by the legislature. We know that. And the reality is, is that with this kind of huge state budget shortfall, every dollar saved for education is a dollar cut somewhere else where it's needed. So we have the responsibility, all of us, and I mean all of us, to go to the legislature, to work with legislators to help them understand why preserving funds for classroom instruction and special education has to be the top priority this legislative session. And if we don't do that, all of us, if we don't make the case to the legislature, then we’ve got nobody to blame but ourselves.”

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee told the board, “It is very important that legislators hear the actual ramifications of potential cuts in order to give them an opportunity to mitigate them. Right now, it seems innocuous that the two cuts that are the greatest in the DOE proposed budget is 10 percent of the weighted student formula and 9 percent for special education. Those two cuts, because most of that funding is actually to fund personnel, it’s our estimation that that could actually lead to over 1,000 teaching positions being eliminated, and that does not count all of our educational assistants, cafeteria workers, and security guards that also could be impacted.”

Related Story: Proposed cuts to weighted student formula, special education will hurt schools, keiki

Board chair Payne said, “Some are holding out hope that more federal funds may come in to address the worst gaps in our services to children, and I have this hope too, but I'm a realist, and we must work with the budget we have, and everyone needs to understand that there will be enormous holes in our service net.”

Principal, classroom teacher describe devastating impacts at the school level

Gay Kong, Keolu Elementary principal, called the cuts “crippling” and explained how they would devastate her small school in Windward Oahu.

“To balance the WSF (weighted student formula) budget, we will need to cut two teacher positions, and the end result will leave us with four teachers to serve seven grade levels,” Kong explained, “so with those severe cuts, we will not have funds left over for instructional materials, sanitation supplies, or even toilet paper. And it might seem a bit strange that we may need to ask our parents to bring in cleaning supplies and toilet paper as part of their child's supply list.

“Our SPED budget is no less severe. We'll cut two educational aide positions, which leaves us with two EAs to cover grades preschool through grade 6. For our SPED teachers, we will have one SPED teacher to serve grades K–6, and one SPED teacher to serve the preschool population,” she added. “Even with making these adjustments and reducing the positions, we will fall short $70,000 to balance our budget.

“At this point, you may have asked, have we looked at other areas in which we can make cuts besides the classroom teachers? And let me tell you a summary of what's left,” Kong continued. “We have a half-time health aide, which is critical in the time of COVID, two custodians that now carry on the extra duties of continuous sanitation of student classrooms, and also the entire building that houses our district personnel. We have one SASA (school administrative services assistant), which everyone knows you cannot do without in a school, and one office clerk who also serves as our meal counselor as well. We do have three non-classroom teachers currently. We will lose the academic coach because of the budget cuts as well; that's besides the two teaching positions. All of our non-classroom teachers hold two positions. One is a half-time librarian and a half-time student support coordinator. Our counselor also is our web coordinator, and our academic coach currently is our EL (English Learner) teacher, but as I said that position will be cut. And just speaking of myself, I act as the tech coordinator. I'm the Title I coordinator. I’m the grab-and-go runner. I’m the recess monitor, and I'm soon to take on the role of the academic coach.”

Julie Reyes Oda, a math teacher at Nanakuli High and Intermediate, told the board, “I'm hearing principals announcing numbers of how many teachers will be cut. For example, I heard recently Kapolei Middle was 16, Ilima (Intermediate) was 14.

“You don't prove you value teachers because you say you do. It's based on what you do and how you treat us,” Reyes Oda said. “It's going to take trust to get things moving, and we need to figure out what are the enduring values that we're going to stand for when this pandemic is over.”

State lawmaker aims to ‘work together’ to avoid ‘draconian cuts’

As incoming vice chair of the House Education Committee, Rep. Jeanné Kapela (D, Naalehu, Ocean View, Capt. Cook, Kealakekua, Kailua-Kona) pledged to find a solution that would not involve “draconian cuts” to education.

“What's before you today would create educational chaos,” she told the board Thursday. “A $100 million cut to Hawaii’s weighted student formula could result in the loss of over 1,000 teacher positions at a time when we're just beginning to address our state's teacher shortage. A $25 million cut to special education programs would jeopardize critical staffing and support for our school system’s most valuable students. A $4 million cut to school-based behavioral health services would disrupt the emotional and psychological assistance upon which highly traumatized students depend.

“We can come up with the revenue that we need in order to address the economic crisis without harming our schools or our keiki’s future,” Kapela continued. “These cuts are not inevitable, whether it's by floating additional bonds to raise operating funds, closing unfair tax loopholes, temporarily suspending certain state payments and tax exemptions, or asking our state's highest earners to pay just a little more to deliver the schools that our keiki deserve. We have an opportunity to create structural changes that sustain rather than undermine the quality of our education and our learning system. We cannot afford to take a sledgehammer to education funding. Instead, we must work together to fix our fiscal problems in a way that allows our children to continue reaching for the stars.”

Related Links

Finance and Infrastructure Committee

Special meeting

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