Charter schools skip furloughs
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Education Writer
Hawai'i's public charter schools are not bound to the state Department of Education's plan to furlough teachers 17 days this year, and it's likely that many charters will opt not to.
The independent schools must come up with ways to deal with a 27 percent decrease in per-pupil funding from the state, but each charter school is developing its own plan.
While some charter schools may use furloughs, others are avoiding them by cutting elsewhere.
Wendy Lagareta, principal of Wai'alae Elementary, a charter school, said her school will not do furloughs this year. Instead the school is operating with a reduced staff, tutors and supplies.
"We began making these changes as of last year," Lagareta said. "Last year we had five reading tutors. This year we have two, and they're part time. ... We didn't fill a technology coordinator position left vacant."
Charter school per-pupil funding has been on the decline for the past several years, while the number of students enrolled in the system of 31 schools has increased. In the 2007-08 school year, charters received $8,149 per student. That dropped the next year to $7,588 per student.
However, the amount of money the charter school system received from the state actually increased in that year from $51 million to $57 million. The decline in per-pupil funding was largely attributed to a spike in enrollment and the addition of three schools to the charter school network.
This year, charters received about $5,530 per student, a 33 percent decrease in funding since 2007.
"Over the past two years our per-pupil funding, that pot of money we get from the state Legislature, has gone way down. We have some schools in real danger now," said Ruth Tschumy, vice chairwoman of the Charter School Review Panel.
Charter schools received a similar 14 percent budget restriction that was imposed on other education agencies, including the DOE and the University of Hawai'i, this year, said Russell Pang, spokesman for Gov. Linda Lingle.
The DOE, governor and teachers union agreed last week that noncharter schools will take 17 furlough days on Fridays starting Oct. 23 and ending May 14.
Charter school executive director Maunalei Love and budget manager Bob Roberts did not return multiple phone calls for comment.
Tschumy said charter school officials have been receiving mixed responses about whether their schools will institute furlough days.
Laara Allbrett, director of Halau Lokahi charter, said her school may have to take furlough days, but she'd prefer them to be scheduled at the end of the school year rather than on the DOE's furlough Fridays.
"We're hopeful that the staff will be amenable to continue working instead of furloughs," she said.
Allbrett said in July the school had cut 16 employees from its payroll — including Hawaiian cultural practitioners, tutors and teachers — because of the expected decrease in its per-pupil allotment. The cutting of Hawaiian practitioners was especially painful because the school was chartered as a Hawaiian-focused school, she said.
"Our funding is not what a public school gets. If we were being funded like other schools, maybe we could survive," she said. "What many (charters) are looking at — and so are we — toward the end of the year, there will not be enough money."
Alvin Parker, director of Ka Waihona 'O Ka Na'auao charter school and chairman of the Charter School Review Panel, said his school is considering furloughs as a way of saving money for next school year. He said charter schools are expecting their per-pupil allotment to decrease by $200 or more next year.
"We have enough money right now. We could operate without the furloughs. Given the biennium budget, it's next year that we're worried about," he said.
Parker said charter school directors are demanding that state officials give a better explanation for the disparity in funding of students at regular public schools versus students at charter schools. This year, charters are getting about $5,530 per student, while the DOE's most recent per-pupil dollar amount is estimated at more than $11,000.
State officials and lawmakers, however, say that the DOE provides special education, and covers charter schools' costs for insurance, the employer share of employee health insurance, Social Security, Medicare, and pension plan payments.
"How is it that there is such a disparity in the funding? We have $5,600, how can it be a $6,000 difference? I don't care which way you cut it, it's not equitable," Parker said.