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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 3, 2006

Give schools slack; don't derail formula

This was bound to happen.

Board of Education members took too much time to approve the long-awaited "weighted student formula," in which schools are funded based on the needs of their particular student population and not simply on overall enrollment. Schools had little time to revamp their budget process, deciding how best to spend the dollars allotted.

And now lawmakers' phones have been ringing off the hook with calls from smaller schools that will lose money under the new plan.

So they are cutting the schools some slack. Extra dollars are being doled out to compensate for the losses, giving school communities a chance to regroup.

That's fair enough. The plan in effect for the first year could be called Weighted Student Formula Lite, because any gains or losses will be limited to 10 percent of the school's budget. Even so, the schools should be given the time to adjust. And with the state surplus in hand, the Legislature is in a good position to lend a hand this year.

It also buys time for the school board to explore ways to adjust the formula, if possible, so that smaller schools won't be disproportionately affected. At the very least, rural communities then can have a chance to network so some operational costs can be shared and resources salaries for certain teacher positions, for example could be pooled.

But it's important that our leaders don't lose sight of the goal. Basing school spending on the critical needs on each campus, and not on a simple head count, makes sense. When it comes to school funding, the state's outdated one-size-fits-all budget calculations have not been an efficient way of handling taxpayer dollars. The new funding formula puts the focus where it should be, on students and individual campus needs.

These fat financial times won't last forever, and the state shouldn't count on a surplus for even one more year. The transition to full adoption of needs-based public school spending must be accelerated. Next year the percentage of gains or losses tolerated should be raised, or the commitment to work through the "growing pains" could end.

State House Education Committee Chairman Roy Takumi observed that "the comfort level is not there yet." Of course, change is uncomfortable. But the final result a system that allows schools to tailor spending to their needs is worth the effort.