Budget cuts do give Hawaii schools more say in spending funds
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Education Writer
While the public school system overall suffered a second straight year of budget cuts at the hands of the governor and state lawmakers, individual campuses can actually expect more money per student thanks to the Legislature's decision to bolster school-level funding.
Lawmakers chose to cut more than $35 million from the state Department of Education's bureaucracy on top of Gov. Linda Lingle's executive restrictions of some $127 million, which resulted in public teacher furloughs and program cuts.
But at the same time, lawmakers restored more than $22 million to the DOE budget via the school-level funding formula — discretionary money spent by individual campuses.
As a result, schools will receive $131 more per student than they did last year, a boost in school-level funding that education officials say is desperately needed.
"We know these cuts will have impact on individual programs and individual offices at the state and complex area," said James Brese, chief financial officer for the DOE. He added that he was pleased that the Legislature also chose to add money to the "weighted student formula," the public school system's method of allocating money to individual schools.
"More funding at the school level in WSF means that schools will have more control of more educational resources and the flexibility to decide how they spend those resources," Brese said.
Lawmakers essentially followed the February recommendations of the state Board of Education for millions of dollars in across-the-board cuts from state- and district-level offices. Examples include:
• An 8 percent across-the-board cut to services for special-needs students, including speech language pathologists, social workers, occupational therapists and physical therapists.
• A 10-percent reduction to contracted special education services.
• Reductions of 10 to 20 percent to DOE's Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Student Support, including some $260,000 from the state's Hawaiian Language Immersion Program, $270,000 from Hawaiian Studies, $68,000 from DOE's Teleschool and $45,000 from programs to address homeless student concerns.
Lawmakers also cut programs on the school level, including the Nānāikapono Community and School Museum on the campus of Nānāikapono Elementary School, the Challenger Center on the Barbers Point Elementary campus, and the Onizuka Memorial Space Museum at Kona International Airport, which is frequented by Big Island students.
Rep. Roy Takumi, chairman of the state House Education Committee, said lawmakers cut many school-level programs, also known as "categorical programs," that were considered to benefit only a select group of students.
By cutting those programs, and at the same time adding $22 million to the state's school-level funding formula, principals will have the option to keep some of the eliminated programs alive if they choose to, Takumi said.
"Now schools will have more flexible dollars. And for those schools that use the Challenger Center or use other categorical programs that got zeroed out, if those clusters of schools truly believe it is a benefit to their children ... then they should embed that in their financial and academic plan for their school and these programs will survive," Takumi said.
"And if only two schools want to do it, then schools are voting with their wallet as to how important it is."
As part of Act 51, the Reinventing Education Act of 2004, the weighted student formula was meant to give principals more flexibility and control over how their school's money is spent, including staff positions, teaching positions, programs, textbooks and supplies.
Rather than the state's central DOE office spending money on behalf of schools, the 2004 law meant that campuses would have control of some 70 percent of their budgets and would be able to make decisions they deem appropriate for their students.
'UP TO THE SCHOOL'
Currently, about $700 million is distributed among the state's public school campuses using this funding formula. While money for music and art programs is included in the weighted student formula, other programs and services are not, including some special education services and athletics.
"That's the way we should do all categorical programs. Don't get me wrong, there are still a bunch of programs out there (that have not been included in WSF). There are some real sacred cows out there. Look at athletics. Should schools be mandated — right now they are — to have athletics? If you want to be true to the weighted student formula ... it's up to the school," Takumi said.
Takumi said lawmakers' decision to cut programs at the state level and add money to school-level funding was "a way to further live up to the spirit of Act 51."
The additional $131 per student is small in comparison to the total that schools receive for each pupil. Under the current funds in the weighted student formula, schools typically receive anywhere from about $3,500 to $5,500 per student depending on the size of the school and the characteristics of the school population.
Garrett Toguchi, chairman of the state Board of Education, said while campuses will see an influx of money, the DOE has seen its budget drop by nearly $260 million in the past two years combined, cuts that led to the furloughs of public school teachers.
'STILL AT SHORTFALL'
"Twenty-two million more to schools is great for the schools; it's something lawmakers should be doing. But then we need to recognize the fact that a lot of support services that schools rely on, such as student transportation, are still at a shortfall," Toguchi said.
Toguchi also said that for some schools, the $22 million in the weighted student formula will mean more available money. But for other schools, the cash infusion will need to be used to save programs that have been cut.
For example, lawmakers cut the $379,000 budget for the state's oldest early-education programs in the public school system, Families for REAL. The program has three sites on public school campuses on O'ahu and Maui and offers educational services to young parents and preschool-age kids.
Laura McHugh, a teacher with Families for REAL at Pearl City Highlands Elementary, said principals cannot be expected to use their school-level funding to keep the program afloat.
"I doubt that principals will be willing to do that when there are so many other needs to think about," McHugh said.
While the state Legislature had designated partial funding for the program from the rainy-day fund, there's no guarantee the money will be released by the governor, said Wade Araki, principal of Ben Parker Elementary, a Families for REAL site.
"Even with the extra money in our lump sum, that doesn't translate into me having the money to keep the program alive," Araki said.
Araki said Ben Parker had originally been planning for an approximate $114 per-student shortfall in its school-level fund. With the extra money from the Legislature, it would mean the school would not have to cut back further on part-time teachers or office staff.
"Already the school is very bare bones. While Families for REAL is a valuable program, I don't have enough money to pay for it by myself," Araki said.
If the partial funding for the program comes through, Araki said he still would have to ask principals from surrounding schools to chip in money to pay the total cost.
The state Legislature also set aside about $67 million from the state's hurricane relief fund for the elimination of furlough days next school year. Gov. Linda Lingle has said she is likely to release about $57 million of that.