Hawaii school classes may get larger under $70M budget cuts
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Education Writer
Education officials say $70 million in budget cuts to the state Department of Education will result in an increase in class size and a reduction in school bus service.
The state House voted Monday on its version of the state budget. In it, lawmakers made line-by-line reductions from a variety of school services and programs, including money to hire teachers, contracts for school maintenance and special-education services, professional development for teachers and state-level administration positions.
In addition to the $18.4 million cut by increasing class size, the House version of the budget includes a $14 million reduction in the school system's transportation services budget, which is already operating in the red.
State Rep. Marcus Oshiro, D-39th (Wahiawā), chairman of the House Finance Committee, categorized some of the areas cut as "exorbitant spending." He noted that in addition to the cuts, the state House added about $50 million into the DOE budget to reduce or eliminate teacher furlough days.
"These are areas that we looked into where we thought we could find some savings without negatively impacting school services," Oshiro said. "It shows a strong commitment to put first things first and address the teacher furlough issues. These other reductions are part of the hard choices."
But not all agree that the choices are good ones.
Hawai'i's public schools have already absorbed $269 million in cuts over this year and next, reductions that have mean 12 fewer instructional days so far this year and will ultimately shorten the school year by 17 days.
State Rep. Roy Takumi, D-36th (Pearl City, Momilani, Pacific Palisades), chairman of the House Education Committee, said yesterday that the cuts amount to further erosion of the state's commitment to public education.
"There is no doubt we are in a tough fiscal situation, but when you pass out a budget bill that will have the ultimate result of increasing class size, I believe that is not the right direction," Takumi said. "We've ended up with the worst of both worlds. We currently have furloughs, and now with this cut, it forces schools to increase their class size."
Class size would increase because the House budget bill cuts $18.4 million from the weighted student formula, the DOE's pot of money that is distributed among schools to be spent by principals for campus needs.
Just how much class size will increase isn't clear.
Oshiro estimated that about 428 new teachers would not be hired, resulting in an increase of about one student per class, due to the budget cut. Currently, elementary school classes have a maximum class size of 25, and secondary school classes have a maximum of 30.
But Takumi, using figures from the DOE, estimated that the $18.4 million cut will likely mean an increase of two students per class for grades 3 to 6, and four students in middle and high school classes.
UP TO PRINCIPALS
While the intention of the cut by the House is to increase class size, it may not work out that way, education officials say.
The Hawai'i State Teachers Association, which represents 14,000 school teachers, would need to agree to the increase. Education officials also say that the weighted student formula is money left up to the discretion of school principals and school community councils — they would decide how to deal with their reduced budget.
James Brese, chief financial officer of the DOE, said about $700 million is distributed among the schools to pay for teachers, counselors, librarians and other staff and school needs. Principals ultimately must decide how to spend their budget.
"It will definitely impact schools. For a small school, for instance, depending on their share of the cut, they may not be able to reduce a teaching position. They may have to not hire additional tutors or something like that. It depends on the school," Brese said.
Class size is not the only area where students may feel the effects if this version of the state budget ultimately passes. School bus service may also have to be dramatically curtailed.
About $14 million would come from transportation service. But the DOE is already about $12 million short in its budget for school buses.
"Assuming that we had to reduce not only the $14 million, but the $12 million that we're already in the hole, it would be a very significant reduction in school bus services. Dramatically fewer. Probably none on O'ahu," said Randy Moore, assistant superintendent of school facilities and support services.
Oshiro said the reduction was "intentionally done to provoke" change in the handling of school bus contracts.
Since 2003, costs have tripled from $28 million to the current $72 million that it takes to run school buses. The reason: Bus contracts run anywhere from six to 10 years, and contract costs often double each time they come up for rebid.
"We need to get our arms around these private bus contracts," Oshiro said. "It's almost like adhesion contracts, where the department has been forced to accept the terms and conditions and price for the bus service."
The House's version of the state budget also cut about $41 million from contracted services in the DOE. Oshiro said some of that amounted to wasteful spending. Others disagree.
For instance, about $23 million of that reduction was being spent on about seven private consultants to oversee about $160 million in construction work.
"It seemed exorbitant for $160 million in construction contracts that you would spend $23 million to manage and oversee those contracts," Oshiro said.
About a year ago, state auditor Marion Higa pointed out similar spending in an audit of the DOE's procurement process. She found that the DOE was spending large amounts of state money to outsource work that should be handled by the department.
Board of Education Chairman Garrett Toguchi said it's not fair to call that spending wasteful.
"It's going to negatively affect our ability to do repair and maintenance projects. Marion (Higa) didn't say it was wasteful spending. She said it more appropriately should be done by state employees. If they take that money, there would be no way for us to hire state employees to do that work," Toguchi said.
Similarly, Oshiro said that about $2.6 million cut from the DOE budget was paying for about 40 administrative-level positions.
"Basically, between 2003 and 2008, there was an increase of 80 administrative positions, yet enrollment only increased by 4,500 students," Oshiro said.
But Toguchi said the DOE has already cut the state- and district-level offices by $80 million and 244 positions.
Toguchi was unwilling to categorize the 40 cut positions as unnecessary.
"I don't think it's safe to make a blanket assessment. Between 2003 and 2008, there have been a lot of changes to federal requirements and compliance with the federal McKinney Vento Act," he said.