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If it weren’t for the objections of a few school board members on Tuesday, the Hawaii Department of Education wouldn’t have included a request for classroom air-conditioning funds in a state budget proposal that’s due Wednesday.
The proposal will formally seek funding for the 2014 fiscal year and outlines potential adjustments to the state’s 2013-15 budget that lawmakers approved earlier this year. The governor’s finance office requires the proposal by Wednesday so that it has enough time to submit the state’s supplemental budget bill to the Legislature for approval during the next session.
After reviewing budget drafts at a meeting Tuesday, some board members said crucial projects in need of funding, including air conditioning in schools, were absent from the proposals.
At the tail end of the board’s six-hour meeting, Board of Education Vice Chair Brian DeLima requested that a line item worth $25 million — a last-minute and somewhat arbitrary amount that board members agreed needs to be penciled out — be added to the budget proposal to speed up A.C. installation at the state’s hottest schools. All board members voted in favor of the amendment.
The risk of a details-free last-minute addition to the request for funding is that it will be less convincing to legislators who are looking for excuses to not fund proposals.
The lack of A.C. in most public school classrooms is increasingly hard to ignore, board members agreed, pointing to a student- and teacher-led campaign that emerged at Campbell High School and that is gaining traction elsewhere in the state.
While additional funding for school programs and reform efforts are important, board member Jim Williams said, being in a hot classroom takes a heavy toll on student learning and can severely undermine those investments.
Board members also pointed to the slow progress of the department’s so-called “heat abatement” program, which includes a prioritized list of schools for A.C. installation and long-term plans to incorporate more sustainable cooling methods like solar power.
The department’s next air conditioning installation is slated for Hickam Elementary school, but it hasn’t yet been fully funded. Ray L’Heureux, DOE assistant superintendent for facilities, emphasized that the department will struggle to fund ongoing maintenance and utilities for the current cooling systems because that money comes out of the operating budget, not the capital improvement project budget.
Officials also said that the department is lagging on its plans to put solar panels on schools due to the Hawaiian Electric Company’s inability to hook up some consumers’ panels to the power grid — delays that are already costing the state because forecast energy savings haven’t yet begun.
Some other projects, like the department’s digital device initiative, aren’t set to receive any supplemental funding.
Lawmakers last session set aside $8 million for the first year of the digital initiative, which aims to ultimately put a laptop or tablet in the hands of every student. But that was nearly $29 million less than the DOE’s original request, which forced the department to rein in its ambitions and scale down to a test program at just eight schools.
On Tuesday, board members asked why the DOE isn’t seeking more money to expand that initiative. “The longer we take to get these computers (or devices), the longer it’s going to take to get them in these students’ hands,” DeLima said, emphasizing that schools also need more individualized IT support to help facilitate the initiative.
But department officials said they won’t have enough data to bolster any additional funding requests for the digital initiative, in part because the DOE doesn’t even plan on distributing the devices to most of the eight pilot schools until later this year.
Board members also advised the DOE to ask the state for an additional $20 million to support each school’s per-student allocation — roughly $6 million more than the $13.9 million originally included in the draft budget proposal for what’s known as the “Weighted Student Formula” budget. The $20 million would be distributed among all principals to supplement the amount that each school receives as part of its weighted student formula — funding based on student enrollment figures and other factors such as special education needs. Each school would have discretion over how to use their supplemental monies.
The board went on to approve increasing the salary cap for the department’s superintendent, from $150,000 to $250,000 — a decision they emphasized doesn’t necessarily mean current Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi is getting a raise. Other executive salary caps, including those for lower-level superintendents, were raised, as well.