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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 25, 2010

Hawaii school board finds another $37.7M to cut from budget


By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Education Writer

Responding to a request from lawmakers to cut another 5 percent from its budget, the state Board of Education worked into the night identifying programs that could be trimmed.

State Sens. Norman Sakamoto and Donna Mercado Kim requested in separate letters that the state Department of Education present a prioritized list of cuts that would add up to 5 percent of the public school system's general fund budget, or about $78 million.

BOE members went line-by-line through a six-page spreadsheet of potential reductions that would add up to that $78 million amount. However, they were only able to agree on a total of $37.7 million which they will send in response to the senators' letters expressing concerns that deeper cuts would reduce or eliminate school-level programs or would otherwise leave schools with fewer dollars for the classroom.

"We had a lengthy discussion on the negative impact of cutting our budget by such a large amount and the majority of the board decided that the $37.7 million was the most we could do without further adversely affecting schools and operation of schools," said Garrett Toguchi, chairman of the BOE.

Hawai'i's public schools have already absorbed $269 million in cuts over this year and next, reductions that resulted in teacher furloughs that have cost students more than three weeks of class time.

Acting Superintendent Kathy Matayoshi told board members any proposed cuts presented to the Legislature would be theoretical.

"This is more than the schools and the department can bear," she said. "We know a lot of these programs have tremendous impact on the learning in the classroom. ... None of these things are great things to do. None of these."

LETTER 'A TRAP'

With the state still looking for ways to cope with a projected $1 billion deficit, lawmakers say more cuts may be needed in a number of state agencies, including the Department of Education.

In a letter dated Feb. 11, Sakamoto directed the DOE to submit a report that would explain the impact of an additional $78 million in cuts.

The report detailing where the $78 million in cuts would come from, included:

• A cut of some $37.5 million from school-level funding, which school principals use to pay for teachers, counselors , librarians, custodians and other campus needs.

• Reduction of $40.5 million from programs on the school or district level, including Peer Education, Learning Centers and alternative learning programs for at-risk students.

• A 6 percent across-the-board cut to athletics, school food services, the A-plus afterschool program and adult education.

Meanwhile, Windward O'ahu BOE member John Penebacker called Sakamoto's letter "a trap." He offered a motion, which eventually died, to ignore the request for a budget reduction proposal.

He said the BOE should handle whatever lump-sum budget reduction that is made by the Legislature when it occurs.

"The board was blamed for furloughs, but the furloughs were brought about by reductions and restrictions by the executive branch and the Legislature. The public will blame us again if we provide a list of programs to be eliminated by the Legislature, which may not happen," Penebacker said.

'GETTING SMASHED'

O'ahu At-Large member Donna Ikeda argued that the board submit something to the Legislature, or else lawmakers will make arbitrary cuts that may not be in the best interest of students.

"If you don't give specifics, then they will take whatever it is they want and we'll have to live with it," Ikeda said.

But Ikeda said she felt she could not make an informed decision in a short period of time on some of the proposed cuts presented to them by Matayoshi and DOE's chief financial officer, James Brese.

"We are not here just to make cuts. We are here to think about the impact of what we are doing on programs for kids," Ikeda said.

O'ahu At-large member Eileen Clarke said she was concerned by the amount of money being proposed to come out of the "weighted student formula," which is the DOE's method of allocating money to school campuses. Under the plan to cut $78 million, about $37.5 million would come from a reduction in the weighted student formula, which amounts to a little more than 5 percent of the total amount allocated to schools.

Already, the BOE had approved an $8 million reduction to the "weighted student formula" in July.

"Was there any consideration to staying as far away from the programs and activities and supports that go directly to students?" Clarke asked. "The school level, it's getting smashed."

Brese said if the DOE were forced to take a $78 million budget cut, it would be difficult for that cut not to affect schools and students.

"If we had that magnitude of a cut and our budget is primarily people, 87 percent of our full-time employees are at the school-level the cuts to the schools are going to be pretty grim," he said.