Wish list for schools not in Lingle's budget
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By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Loren Moreno
Money to reduce class size for third-graders, help homeless students, test teachers for drugs and bring in drug-sniffing dogs was left out of Gov. Linda Lingle's budget for this legislative session.
The state Department of Education wanted Lingle to include these and other items in its $48 million supplement budget, but the governor turned them down. Tax revenue is growing slower than previously forecast, so all agencies must hold the line on spending, a Lingle administration official said.
"It boils down to the amount of resources we have available. It's impossible that everything would get funded," said state Budget and Finance Director Georgina Kawamura. All departments must tighten their belts during the current economic slump, Kawamura said.
Education officials are lobbying legislators to get extra funding during a session marked by fiscal restraint. The requests are on top of the $2 billion annual DOE budget the Legislature approved last year.
"The items we have in the budget we feel would move the department forward and are important for the overall benefit of the students," said James Brese, chief executive officer of the DOE.
Brese pointed out that some $30 million of the $48 million supplemental budget request goes directly into the classroom to improve student achievement — from math assistance to additional resource teachers.
On top of the $48 million, the DOE asked for $49 million to remove more than 300 cesspools from rural school campuses. Lingle did not include that in her budget either
REQUESTS GET A HEARING
Lawmakers say they are looking closely at the DOE's requests.
"I'm always an advocate for education funding," said Sen. Norman Sakamoto, D-15th (Waimalu, Airport, Salt Lake), chairman of the Senate's Committee on Education. "I am hopeful we can do some of these things, but I am cautiously optimistic on the number," he said.
Many Board of Education members are frustrated by the status of their requests, as seen in the public dispute between the governor and board members over who should pay for random drug testing of teachers.
That $500,000 request included in the supplemental budget was denied by Lingle's administration.
"I know money is tight and all that, but I'm a little worried about the drug testing. Who is supposed to fund this?" said board member Mary Cochran, one of the strongest anti-drug advocates on the board.
"Why is she nixing our whole request? I don't know," Cochran said.
The governor has said the Department of Education can pay for the drug testing from existing funds and pointed out that there was about $30 million left over from last year's school budget. However, education officials say that money is already earmarked for schools to get books, computers or additional staff positions.
The governor also left out a request for more than $600,000 to help homeless students on Maui and the Big Island. DOE officials say the request is urgent, pointing to another 200 students who were identified as homeless since last school year.
It is estimated that within the last three school years, the homeless student population has increased from about 700 to about 1,040, Brese said.
The money would help pay for two full-time resource teachers and about 16 part-time teachers who would specifically help homeless students.
There is only one full-time resource teacher dedicated to homeless students statewide, Brese said.
Rep. Marcus Oshiro, D-39th (Wahiawa), chairman of the House Committee on Finance, said that money is necessary, pointing toward a lawsuit against the state over homeless students.
On Monday, a U.S. District judge made a preliminary ruling requiring that the state comply with the federal McKinney-Vento Act. The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawai'i filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of three families last year alleging the DOE does not adequately inform homeless parents of their rights or monitor compliance with the law.
ACLU SUIT IN PROGRESS
The McKinney-Vento Act requires school districts to allow homeless students to continue to attend school in the student's "school of origin, or one near the homeless student's current temporary residence, at the parent's option."
The ACLU says the DOE uses policies that make it difficult for transient students to find stability in their schooling.
"In the past, the Legislature has always provided more funding to the DOE than was approved by the governor," Oshiro said. "In those almost mandatory requirements like the homeless students or student weighted formula funding, we're going to have to fund them."
Lawmakers also may approve spending $49 million to remove 322 cesspools in 50 rural schools statewide because the work was mandated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
"The state could be fined several thousand dollars a day" if that work doesn't get done, Oshiro said. "We have to find a way of funding that."
There is a September 2009 deadline to complete that work, Brese said.
"I've never known a governor to not fund something like that," said Rep. Roy Takumi, D-36th (Pearl City, Momilani, Pacific Palisades), chair of the House Committee on Education.
However, Budget Director Kawamura said that the governor didn't exclude the project. Instead, the administration has proposed using $140 million in general obligation bonds to meet various education-related construction projects.
"We recommended a dollar amount. We left it to them to determine how they wanted to spend it," Kawamura said. "So if that was important, they could have told us that $49 million has to go to cesspool removal."
The governor also did not include in her budget $300,000 to implement a controversial drug-sniffing dog program. The program will likely remain on the back burner if it doesn't get funded, said board member Cochran.
"I was hoping it was going to come around, especially after we had a report about the drug sniffing dogs being an effective deterrent," Cochran said.
Oshiro said it is too early to say how many of the DOE's requests will get funded by the Legislature. But he said the items seen as crucial and necessary will likely receive strong consideration.
"We will be listening to them and trying to weigh their requests among all other departments," Oshiro said.
"But there are things here that can't be denied," he said.
Reach Loren Moreno at email@example.com.
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