A new legislative committee consisting of four Hawaii Board of Education members will engage directly with lawmakers this coming session to advocate for education funding.

It’s the first time such an ad-hoc committee has been formed within the board, which is the policy-making body that oversees the state Department of Education.

Catherine Payne, who became the BOE chair six months ago, told Civil Beat the committee will serve as another access point for understanding how the DOE budget works and what the most critical needs of the department are.

“One of the things I recognized from my conversations is we need to have a stronger presence with legislators to help them understand the complexities they might not be aware of,” Payne said. “It’s building that relationship that to me is super important.”

Board of Education Catherine Payne.

Board of Education Chairwoman Catherine Payne will sit on a new ad-hoc legislative committee for the 2019 session, along with three other BOE members.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The committee, which includes Payne and board members Bruce Voss, Dwight Takeno and Kili Namau’u, will attend legislative hearings, submit testimony on bills separate from the DOE’s and answer specific questions regarding the DOE.

It won’t supplant the DOE’s own advocacy efforts at the Legislature, but instead will work in partnership with the superintendent’s team, said Payne. The idea is to be able to engage with lawmakers even before a bill goes to hearing and serve a more proactive role in sorting through the DOE budget.

“I want us to go in understanding things ahead of time, and not just reacting (to issues raised in hearings),” Payne said. “People are always saying, (the DOE is) asking for so much, you’re the biggest part of the budget.”

Providing more specifics could help secure more education funding or justify why additional funds are needed in certain areas.

“Some (legislators) are interested in how (a funding request) is going to help students or student progress,” Payne said. “Others are interested in us showing how (existing) money is being spent.”

The latter preference is reflected in the words of Rep. Sylvia Luke, the House Finance chair, who said her input to DOE officials regarding their budget usually is, “This makes no sense.” She specifically cited “EDN 100, 150, 200, 300, 400” — the various categories, like school-based support, instructional support and administrative support — into which the DOE carves up its budget.

“How do we know how much is being spent at Kalani High vs. Campbell High? And how many kids are you servicing?” Luke said. “If we don’t know those things, how do we know if we’re spending those monies efficiently?”

The 2019 legislative session, the start of a new fiscal biennium, could be particularly important for the DOE, whose $1.9 billion annual budget — covering a school system of 179,000 students and 22,000 employees — trails only the state Department of Human Services as the agency taking up the largest share of state expenditures.

Finance Committee Chair Sylvia Luke said the DOE budget “makes no sense.”

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Though a proposed constitutional amendment to tax certain properties for education was invalidated by the state Supreme Court before the November election, it kicked up a heated debate about school funding, including calls for a performance audit.

Everyone from the governor to the state teachers’ union to the superintendent has used the ConAm experience to springboard into a larger conversation about DOE funding.

“We’re committed to continue to fight for more resources. We will continue to work with everyone,” Gov. David Ige said at an Oct. 22 press conference organized by the Hawaii State Teachers Association shortly after the court invalidated the ballot measure.

In its list of strategic priorities for 2019-2021, the DOE has prioritized more funding for special education, English language learner services, Title IX compliance and anti-bullying efforts.

It’s also prioritizing teacher recruitment and retention initiatives, more pre-kindergarten classrooms and the expansion of Early College initiatives.

Payne said she understands that not all the conversations at the Legislature will focus on specific dollar requests. Lawmakers must feel assured the DOE has specific plans in place to address issues ranging from the teacher shortage to a recent lawsuit over gender inequities in state athletic programs.

Regarding shortages, “we need different strategies,” said Payne, a former principal and teacher. “It’s more than just pay, it’s (teacher) housing, it’s school culture. It’s things that don’t cost money.”

Some legislators are optimistic about the board’s new engagement plan.

“I applaud Chair Payne’s foresight and initiative in creating an ad-hoc committee and policy paper to guide the BOE in the upcoming and future legislative sessions,” said state Sen. Michelle Kidani, the Education Committee chair.

“It is my hope that by participating in the legislative process that the Board will offer their insight and expertise to myself and other legislators, but also keep an open mind to the concerns of our constituents and stakeholder groups who come before us each year,” Kidani said.

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