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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Hawaii’s A+ cost will probably hit $80

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Ashley Takenami, 9, shows her mother, Helen Lau, the homework she did in Noelani Elementary's A-Plus program.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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State lawmakers are on the verge of bumping the $55 monthly cost for Hawai'i's popular A-Plus after-school care program to $80, meaning Kimi Swan will have to dig that much deeper to balance her childcare needs.

"A-Plus takes a lot off of my shoulders," said Swan, whose fourth daughter, Riley, 8, attends A-Plus each day at Noelani Elementary School in Mānoa. "I'd rather it stayed at $55 because $80 is tough when times are hard."

House and Senate conference negotiators wrestling with Hawai'i's overall hard fiscal times have chopped the state's $2.1 million share from the program, which has served about 21,000 students every year since it was created in 1989.

What began as a free program evolved into a $55 monthly fee for the first child in each family in 1996, with a sliding scale for siblings.

The actual cost of the program was always about $80 per month per child, but the state's contributions kept the price down to $55 for the first child in a family.

But now, negotiators from both sides of the Legislature will ask all lawmakers on Friday to eliminate the state's contribution and charge families the full $80 cost for their first child, beginning July 1.

"I'll have to dish it out because I need it," said Swan, whose three teenage daughters also attended A-Plus when they were younger.

The cut to the A-Plus program — and the extra burden on family budgets — is just a small bit of fallout from the financial problems facing the Department of Education and other state departments.

The DOE, which administers the A-Plus program, faces another $45 million to $81 million in potential cuts for the upcoming school year, said spokeswoman Sandy Goya.

"Given this magnitude of cuts, we will need to closely scrutinize all programs and make many difficult decisions in response to our state's fiscal crisis," Goya said in an e-mail. "Eliminating general funds for the Afterschool Plus program will result in higher parent fees. If the budget bill passes in its current form, the department will submit a recommendation to the state Board of Education to increase the parent fee from $55 to $80 per child per month."

Yesterday, it appeared that families of needy A-Plus students who are funded through the state Department of Human Services might be spared cost increases.

DHS officials administer $6.3 million in Federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Family funds that cover the $80 monthly cost for about 8,600 needy children in A-Plus each year, DHS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said.

"We feel the federal money should be spent when it's available and we should conserve state money whenever we can," Schwartz said.

State Rep. Roy Takumi, D-36th, (Pearl City, Momilani, Pacific Palisades,) chairs the House education committee and said the A-Plus cuts recommended by House and Senate conference negotiators are difficult to avoid at a time when Hawai'i has been embarrassed by its furlough Fridays, which left Hawai'i's public schools with the fewest instructional days in the country.

"No one likes to pay more," Takumi said. "But at a time when we're looking at eliminating other programs in the DOE itself, this might be something we have to do now. A-Plus is not considered educational. It's just a safe place to keep your children."

A generation of Hawai'i school children has grown up in the A-Plus program, which allows students to play, create crafts and do homework until their parents pick them up each afternoon.

"I'm a single mom and I absolutely need it," said Helen Lau, who teaches English at Leilehua High School in Wahiawā and then picks up her daughter, Ashley Takenami, a 9-year-old, fourth-grader at Noelani Elementary, each day.

"I lose $500 a month net from furlough Fridays and now I'll have to pay more for A-Plus," Lau said. "It's a double whammy. But, like I said, I need it."

Like many other parents picking up their children yesterday at Noelani, Robin Chock praised the A-Plus leaders and the program — while bracing for the likelihood that she'll have to pay more each month.

Chock brings her daughter, Nalani, 7, to Mānoa every morning from 'Ewa before going to work in town as an HMSA quality assurance trainer.

"I cannot get off early so I really need A-Plus," Chock said. "I'm just going to have to absorb the extra cost. Or I'll just end up working even more overtime to pay for it."