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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 12, 2010

School budget gap forces a reality check

No wonder the public schools are in decline and disarray. Compounding the burden of balancing a budget amid shrinking revenues, elected leaders lack a rational path toward a solution.

Witness the latest whack the state House took at the Department of Education budget. In an effort to save another $70 million, state representatives embarked on a line-by-line tour of the budget, scalpel in hand. Among the biggest chunks carved off is $18.4 million that, theoretically, could be saved by increasing class sizes.

In reality, things are more complicated than that. To change the student-teacher ratio, the Hawaii State Teachers Association still at an impasse with its bosses over ways to reduce furloughs on teaching days will have to come to terms on yet another prickly issue. And unless the Earth has shifted on its axis in the past few months, getting the teachers' union on board with larger classes is going to be a very heavy lift.

And the state Board of Education, another of several lunas overseeing the public-school plantation, is finding fault with the spending plan as well.

If there's to be any hope of salvaging a passable schools program for the coming year and beyond, fixes are needed for the short and long term.

For the coming school year, the Legislature needs to cut its losses on the whole furlough issue to free up more money to cover the budget gap. Lawmakers need to swallow hard and tell the public the remaining five furlough Fridays in the current school year will stay put. (Tough to do in an election year, but those are the breaks.) That would amount to $25 million in savings.

Looking ahead, legislators need to make sure that either SB 2570 or HB 2376 survives the Capitol sausage-making of the coming weeks. These measures would propose an amendment to the state constitution to have the school board appointed by the governor rather than elected. There needs to be clearer lines of authority over public education, and this plan would move the state in the right direction without sacrificing necessary checks and balances.

Another surviving reorganizational fix might improve accountability further. SB 2960, supported by the DOE, would pare back layers of unwieldy bureaucracy by restructuring the agency's divisions without adding any senior positions. That idea deserves attention by the House.

Other than such efficiency measures, lawmakers should apply a reality check to the session and return to the realm of the possible.

And that begins with a clear-eyed view of how many furlough days the state can truly afford to restore.