Hawaii’s special education teachers learned more than a month into the school year that the money they count on every year to reimburse them for basic supplies will not be coming — now or ever. Many of them had already spent money out of their own pockets for supplies.

For the last 10 years, the state’s 2,000 special education teachers have each received a $1,690 classroom supply fund. They and their schools use this money to buy pencils, workbooks and other items. They also use it to buy ink and the paper needed to print out lengthy forms required by law for students with special needs, like Individualized Education Programs.

“We always depend on that money, year in and year out, for consumables,” said Justin Hughey, a special education teacher at King Kamehameha III Elementary School in Lahaina. “Special ed teachers usually have to buy a different curriculum for their students, and even though we still usually spend some of our own money throughout the year, we depend on this for all the essential stuff.”

But the $3.3 million program ended abruptly this year, with only retroactive notice to principals, complex area superintendents and teachers.

A memo from a Hawaii Department of Education assistant superintendent announced the program’s termination effective this year. It was dated Sept. 8, but it was not sent to principals until Sept. 15 — a month and a half after students returned to school.

“This is in response to numerous inquiries made regarding the $1690 special education classroom supply funds,” wrote Joyce Bellino, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and student support.

Bellino goes on to blame the program’s termination on legislators.

“State Leadership made the decision to utilize the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) funds…to provide an additional year of $1690 special education classroom funds. ARRA funds for this purpose were limited to only one year.”

From now on, the memo says, special education teachers will have to rely on the money their schools receive through the Weighted Student Formula.

The supply fund was not the only to suffer from a shrinking general fund, a Department of Education spokeswoman said.

“This reduction resulted in the elimination of school year 2010-11 general funds for various programs, including special education classroom supply monies,” Communications Director Sandy Goya wrote in an email to Civil Beat. “Fortunately, states received a short-term boost from economic stimulus funds provided by the federal government. Unfortunately, the expiration of federal stimulus dollars has resulted in the ‘cliff effect.’ On a more positive note, special education teacher and educational assistant positions were preserved.”

She added that the elimination should have come as no surprise to the teachers and principals and repeated what Bellino stated in her memo, that “the Weighted Student Formula includes funding for special education students.”

Still, Goya did not answer a question about why the department waited so long to send out the notice.

But because principals created their financial plans last year, counting on that $1,690, now they have to play the villain by taking money from other programs they budgeted for, said State Rep. Angus McKelvey — or else neglect the kids with special needs.

The supply money has always been slow to arrive, Hughey said, so he stopped spending the full $1,690 at the beginning of the year. For that reason, he’s not as deep in the financial hole as some of his colleagues who already spent the money. And that new ding to their checkbooks is coming on top of a 5 percent pay cut and an increase in health costs.

“I have one teacher at my school who is brand new to the elementary school, and two months after he’s spent everything, you’re telling him he’s not going to get anything to reimburse him for those things,” Hughey said. “This is a huge hit — not just for him, but for all of us.”

He added that he doesn’t understand why the department couldn’t have just cut some of the funding for the program, instead of eliminating it altogether.

“I could see some sort of cut to it, sure, but going to zero?”

One special ed teacher he knows at a different school is talking about making fundraising signs and starting a not-for-profit organization to stop the gap.

Hughey blames Gov. Linda Lingle‘s administration for relying on the federal stimulus funds essential education programs, but said there is “lots of blame to go around.”

McKelvey said he is “ticked off” that the department didn’t at least inform principals and teachers of the program elimination before the school year began. Communities could have pitched in to raise money, and special ed teachers would not have already spent so much out of their own pockets. Issuing a memo one-quarter of the way through the school year, he said, and only in response to repeated inquiries, was irresponsible.

He added that the money from the Weighted Student Formula will only pit students with special needs against the rest of the student body.

“I’m just completely shocked and appalled by the whole thing,” he said. “It came out of nowhere.”

McKelvey is furious that lawmakers are being blamed for it, too, because it was the department’s decision to fund the program with the temporary federal recovery funds.

“They decided internally to use the ARRA funds to replace the $1,690 funding,” he said. “And at no time last year did the Department of Education come before the Legislature and say they were requesting funding for the $1,690. They didn’t have a contingency plan for when those funds ended, and now special ed teachers don’t have the money they need to get materials for their kids.”

He added that this situation needs to lead to a bigger discussion next year about how to generate more revenue for education.

“If education is going to be a priority, we need to look at other ways to fund it,” he said.

Hughey agreed that the public and lawmakers need to place a higher priority on education.

“The overall sentiment from the public seems to be cut, cut, cut,” he said. “But this is what happens when you cut too much: Kids don’t get pencils and paper in school.”

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