Hawaii’s top education official warned Thursday of program cuts or consolidations and potential staffing reductions or position freezes as the education department stares at a $100 million budget reduction triggered by the pandemic.

Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, addressing the state Board of Education at its monthly meeting, said the reduction to the DOE’s $2.1 billion budget will be “decimating” to core programs and puts “extraordinary” pressure on education officials to deliver quality education in these leaner times.

While DOE leaders didn’t have a specific plan to present to the board as far as what exactly — or whom — might be on the chopping block, Kishimoto said the next several weeks will be “critical” as far as conversations with senior leadership go in determining priority areas.

Department of Education board meeting.
The Board of Education, which has been conducting non-video virtual meetings since the pandemic began, wanted more answers from DOE leaders on proposed cuts to school-level programs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

“Everyone started with a 10% budget cut to their operating budgets,” she said at the meeting, referring to her seven assistant superintendents who oversee various areas such as curriculum, performance, facilities, hiring and retention and information technology.

According to a memo submitted to the board, the DOE identified six possible routes to meet the $100 million shortfall: permanent program eliminations or consolidations; replacement practices; reprioritization of programs; temporary eliminations of essential programs; staffing reductions or position freezes; or other areas for “government efficiencies.”

Kishimoto was slightly more specific at the meeting, saying the DOE will also look at trimming external contracts, while prioritizing “major projects” like an e-learning system, financial management replacement system and safety and security spending.

In an attachment to that memo, the DOE said it could potentially be facing anywhere from a 10% to 20% reduction to its overall budget starting in the 2022 fiscal year, which amounts to $165 million to $330 million.

The department said it had been asked to propose budget adjustments of 10%, 15% and 20% for fiscal years 2022 and 2023 in the midst of a severe economic crisis brought on by the pandemic.

DOE leadership plans to present a more specific plan to the board early next month.

Some board members seemed frustrated by the lack of specificity offered Thursday.

Dwight Takeno, chair of the BOE’s Human Resources subcommittee, told Kishimoto he hoped there is a way “to protect (and) preserve as much as possible in-classroom instruction.”

“That’s what I’m looking for and that’s what I expect (to see) in December,” he said.

Bruce Voss asked about direct impacts to schools. Cindy Covell, the DOE assistant superintendent in the Office of Talent Management, said since schools’ 2021-22 financial plans aren’t due to the central office until the end of December, such details might not be gleaned until January.

DOE leaders have been asked to present two different versions of a budgetary plan: one that’s contingent on the DOE striking collective bargaining adjustments with teachers — the current contract with the Hawaii State Teacher Association expires in June — and an alternative plan due to budgetary considerations.

The governor submits his proposed executive budget to the Legislature in mid-December. The DOE’s $2.1 billion state budget is comprised of 82% in state funds.

With enrollment in DOE schools already down nearly 3% this year as more families opt for home-schooling or other modes of instruction, many campuses are already at a funding disadvantage.

Back in April, the DOE said all schools would receive a 2.4% reduction in weighted student formula funds this school year.

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