Near the western end of Molokai, about 16 miles from the closest town, sits Maunaloa Elementary School and its 60 or so students.

The school has one of the smallest enrollments in the state, and like many others in Hawaii, has trouble retaining teachers.

But the issue isn’t necessarily low teacher pay – teachers often leave Maunaloa and other small schools in rural areas because they’re having to teach additional subjects areas and grade levels.

Manunaloa principal Joe Yamamoto said that’s because his school and others like it don’t get enough money through the state’s Weighted Student Formula, the per-pupil funding each public school receives. Sometimes they get additional help from a reserve fund, but that’s awarded annually and cannot be taken for granted when budgeting.

Over the past five school years, Maunaloa Elementary School’s enrollment has ranged from 51 to 87 students. Courtesy of Office of Rep. Lynn DeCoite

The state Department of Education’s proposed budget requests an additional $28 million for the Weighted Student Formula for each of the next two fiscal years.

While that wouldn’t necessarily address the problems particular to small rural schools, the Hawaii State Teachers Association is asking the Legislature to provide a $1,000 per student allotment on top of the per-pupil funding that those schools receive.

The teachers union’s focus is on schools, including charters, in Hana on Maui, on Lanai and Molokai, and 12 schools on the Big Island.  

According to Corey Rosenlee, HSTA president, the biggest concern the union has heard about the formula from small schools is that enrollment can dramatically change from one year to the next, meaning funding amounts can be erratic.

“So, we’re saying that we’ve got to invest more in those small schools so they have a consistent amount of money and make sure they have services for their students,” he said.

Last year, the union advocated — mostly unsuccessfully — for cooler classrooms, competitive teacher salaries that reflect Hawaii’s high cost of living, and an increase in the general excise tax to pay for it all.

Fewer Students, Less Money

The challenge for schools with small enrollments, said Yamamoto, who has been principal of Maunaloa Elementary since 1998, is that they don’t receive enough money through the per-pupil formula to cover certain operations.

Yamamoto compares the situation of a small school to that of a mom and pop store.

“There’s no way that the mom and pop can compete with Costco because they really deal with larger volumes and they can actually get things cheaper,” he said.

Maunaloa Highway connects Maunaloa to Kaunakakai, about 16 miles away. Small, rural schools are struggling to come up with enough money to effectively operate. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

To make up for the insufficient money, staff members at small schools take on additional responsibilities for the jobs aren’t being funded.

At Maunaloa Elementary, Yamamoto operates with a skeleton crew. He has no librarian, counselor or student services coordinator. He has six teachers and nine support staff members, and not all of them are on a full-time or permanent basis.

While he has some federally funded education assistants, he still has to fill the roles of a school counselor to coordinate state testing and a student services coordinator to connect students that are struggling in class to outside resources.

Sometimes, classes have to be combined, which Yamamoto said makes them more difficult to manage for teachers because students’ abilities, even in a class with only two grades, could span five grade levels.

That, combined with job security concerns when budgets fluctuate wildly, makes teachers less likely to stick around.

“What would you do if you were a teacher that’s figuring out next year you may be teaching a combination class or three grade levels?” he said. “You would transfer. And that has happened already.”

Maunaloa Elementary is receiving about $483,000 through per-pupil funding for this school year, but Yamamoto said the school normally needs $550,000 to $650,000 to operate.

“We’re already looking at cutting positions,” he said.

Next year, the school expects its enrollment to drop.

DOE’s Reserve Funds Help

More than 100 miles away on the Big Island, Kohala Middle School has about 180 students enrolled. Staff members wear different hats to cover the missing librarian, registrar and coach positions, and instructors teach multiple grade levels and subjects, said Principal Alan Brown.

However, he said the school is making it work with its $1 million from per-pupil funding, using part-time teachers to help fill the holes. It hasn’t had to sacrifice any classes – including electives – that are needed for students to be promoted to high school.

“It is what it is,” Brown said. “We get a certain amount of money, we deal with it and we do the best for our kids.”

The teaching staff is pretty stable, Brown said. Out of 16 teaching positions, only one or two leave each year.

Kohala Middle School is located on the Big Island and is the only public middle school within a 25-mile radius. Courtesy of Alan Brown

“We have a hard time filling certain positions, but I would say in general, teachers like it here and they want to stay,” he said.

While teachers may have to teach multiple subjects or grade levels, he said the advantage is being able to live in a small community that cares about its students and teachers.

Kohala Middle School’s $1 million per-pupil total includes additional monies from the Weighted Student Formula reserve fund, which was created in 2011.

According to Lindsay Chambers, a spokeswoman for the state DOE, that fund is open to combination schools, geographically isolated schools and schools that have very low enrollment or have other extraordinary circumstances. The fund totals $2.25 million for the current school year.

Schools have to apply for the extra monies, and there’s no guaranteed they’ll receive them each year. Still, they have been helpful in bringing new technology to Kohala Middle School, like Smart Boards in classrooms.

Applications for the reserve funds are made available in late September or early October, after tentative allocations for per-pupil funding are issued to the schools for the following school year, Chambers said. A panel of complex area superintendents decides which schools get additional money by late October or early November.

Schools are notified as soon as possible so that they can factor in the additional funds they’ll get when planning for the next school year, Chambers said.

Maunaloa Elementary also receives funds from the reserve, ranging from $70,000 to $120,000 the last five years.

Level Playing Field?

According to Brian Hallett, director of the DOE’s Budget Branch, the Weighted Student Formula is meant to be a transparent and equitable way to distribute funds to the public schools.

“One of the points that we always try to make is the Weighted Student Formula is not intended to, nor would it be able to, solve the issue of adequacy,” he said at a recent Board of Education Meeting meeting. “It provides a level playing field for all schools.”

A 2013 evaluation of the Weighted Student Formula found that most principals felt the funds were allocated equitably, but they did not agree that the funding amounts were sufficient.

The formula distributes money based on type of school, enrollment and what school and student characteristics – like being on a neighbor island and having economically disadvantaged students – are applicable. Students who receive free or reduced lunches are considered economically disadvantaged.

According to Principal Joe Yamamoto, a majority of his students at Maunaloa Elementary receive free and reduced lunches – a sign of a community with a low socio-economic status. Courtesy of Office of Rep. Lynn DeCoite

The HSTA is not alone in its request for more money for small and rural schools.

Rep. Lynn DeCoite – who represents East Maui, Molokai and Lanai – plans on introducing her own bills to help them. While she declined to cite specifics, she said they’ll be modeled after three she introduced last year.

One bill, House Bill 2583, asked that principals consult with their teachers and school community councils to decide how money provided to their schools should be spent.

Two others, House Bill 2655 and House Bill 2656, would have required that schools, including charters, located in remote areas be allocated monies via categorical allotments, rather than the Weighted Student Formula, that guarantee that such schools will have enough money to fund the minimum number of teaching and supportive positions that they need, without having to combine any of them.

Categorical funds are monies that must be expended for a specific purpose at a school, according to a DOE Weighted Student Formula manual.

“The schools in the rural areas do not have the same student population numbers as other schools across the state, but they still have the same needs,” DeCoite said in an emailed statement, adding that while the formula may make sense for most schools, it does a disservice to those in rural areas.

Rosenlee declined to say which legislator will be authoring HSTA’s request to increase the amount of per-pupil funding the small schools receive.  

He said that HSTA’s proposed additional $1,000 per student allotment for small and rural schools is not meant to supplant any current funding, including that of the Weighted Student Formula reserve fund.

“We’re asking on top of,” he said. “And to be honest with you, I wish it could be a lot more.”

For Brown at Kohala Middle School, any additional money would help. Under its current enrollment, his school would get $180,000 if HSTA’s proposal is approved. That means he could fund three more teaching positions.

“That would be one of the coolest things that ever happened,” he said.

Yamamoto agrees that the union proposal would help.

“Individuals always ask, is it the Weighted Student Formula that we’re worried about?” he said. “Yes, I worry about it because you don’t want to end up in a situation where you cannot provide the necessary services for all students. That’s the bottom line.”

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