Hawaii’s public schools will see less money per student and special education programs will face steep cuts in the state Department of Education’s proposed budget for 2021 to 2023, prompting the state teachers union to warn that 1,000 teaching positions may be lost.

The DOE also strongly suggested that pay increases for special education teachers and Hawaiian language immersion teachers, which were implemented earlier this year in a bid to reduce vacancies in those areas, could be discontinued without an emergency appropriation.

The biennium budget proposal will be presented to the state Board of Education for approval on Thursday as the DOE struggles to contend with a minimum $165 million budget shortfall caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee at DOE presser announcing pay increases for special needs and Hawaiian language teachers.
HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said the DOE’s proposed cut could lead to the loss of 1,000 teacher positions. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The DOE proposal includes a 10% reduction of $95 million to the weighted student formula, which directly allocates money to schools, and a 9% reduction to special education programs that would amount to about $24.5 million.

“This reduction will directly impact educational services for students,” DOE documents say about the proposed special education cuts. “All schools will be greatly impacted due to a reduction in workforce.”

School-based behavioral health services were among the other items identified for steep cuts.

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said weighted student formula and special education funds together comprise about 80% of the DOE’s entire $1.8 billion operating budget. So with about 13,000 teaching positions funded through these two buckets, a 9% to 10% cut to these items would translate to roughly 1,000 staff positions, he explained.

“We’ve already heard from principals (who’ve) talked to their teachers about losing their positions,” he said. Adding there could be “huge ramifications” to the drop in WSF funding, Rosenlee said this will mean larger class sizes as well as cuts to librarian positions and art, music and Hawaiian immersion programs.

The department also warned that $30.7 million spent to support annual pay increases this year for special education teachers and Hawaiian language immersion teachers may not be sustainable next year.

“There needs to be some real different thinking in the way schools and complex areas look at the delivery of education and services.” — ex-state Sen. Jill Tokuda

The salary differentials, which narrowly escaped elimination over the summer, include an extra $10,000 for special education teachers and $8,000 for Hawaiian language immersion teachers.

They were among a separate $96 million category dubbed “underfunded or unfunded needs,” along with $9.5 million for workers’ compensation, $24 million for unemployment insurance, $24.9 million for food service and other costs that also were expected to be debated on Thursday.

Rosenlee said it’s “unclear” whether the salary differentials are in distinct danger. He said the program has been “a remarkable success.”

“We have the lowest amount of vacancies we’ve had in a long time,” he said.

In a briefing to lawmakers last month, the DOE said it had seen just one-third of the number of special ed teacher vacancies this year compared with a typical year.

The DOE said it may have to submit an “emergency appropriation request” to the governor’s office to continue to fund these areas.

This is on top of an already recurring $100.2 million general fund reduction plus additional reductions ranging anywhere from 10% to 30% under a directive by the governor.

The DOE swallows up 21% of the state’s general budget. Once approved by the board, the recommended budget goes to Gov. David Ige, who is weighing whether to impose public employee cuts or furloughs. His budget is due to the state Legislature by Dec. 21. The 2021 session starts on Jan. 20.

While no decision has been made on possible furloughs — though House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke said she is inclined to protect DOE and UH from a large part of these cuts – the DOE has identified other areas to trim.

They include a reduction of more than 100 full-time positions, a reduction of $1.5 million for its Early College program, and possibly school consolidations and conversion of 12-month positions to 10-months for certain state office positions.

A Nov. 24 letter addressed to Ige, DOE superintendent Christina Kishimoto and BOE chairwoman Catherine Payne signed by more than two dozen education advocates expressed disappointment with the DOE’s preliminary plan for budget reductions.

The letter said the DOE needs more evidence-based practices to guide its budget framework, calling for “smart budgeting that uses a scalpel vs. a machete.”

Kaneohe Elementary School summer school classroom during COVID-19 pandemic. June 12, 2020
Hawaii’s Department of Education has proposed steep cuts to its 2021-2023 budget. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It called one DOE guiding principle to “protect our core mission of teaching and learning” broad “to the point of being useless,” saying a more effective strategy would be to target the preservation of programs like early grade literacy, middle school math, the Early College program and career and technical education.

The letter also suggested moving all non-classroom district teachers back to the classroom and converting 12-month employees to 10 months. The advocates also urged the DOE to be more “proactive” in providing direct federal support to families — that if students can’t return safely to classrooms by spring, that families receive direct financial supports to cover expenses like technology, child care and supplemental learning materials.

Former State Sen. Jill Tokuda, who headed the state education committee when the state last saw itself in an economic recession, said the DOE needs to think outside the box as far as where to cut.

“You want to keep as whole as possible dollars going to student learning and support,” she said. “There needs to be some real different thinking in the way schools and complex areas look at the delivery of education and services.”

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