Tossing the ball to the Legislature, the Hawaii Board of Education unanimously approved the Department of Education’s proposed budget for the next two fiscal years despite concern about deep cuts to school funding and special education programs.

To deal with a massive pandemic-related shortfall in the 2022 fiscal year — which begins on July 1 — the DOE must slash many programs and services from its nearly $2 billion operating budget, which consumes about one-fifth of the state’s entire budget.

“This is going to be a huge and very uncomfortable undertaking,” board member Dwight Takeno said of the discussions set to take place at the next legislative session, which starts Jan. 20. Lawmakers must hammer out the state’s 2021-23 budget amid a severe economic crisis.

Public sit in a circle during a meet/greet with Board of Education board member Dwight Takeno and left, Chair Catherine Payne at Manoa Library.
Photographed here in July 2018, BOE Chairwoman Catherine Payne and board member Dwight Takeno expressed grim concern over the state of education delivery due to proposed budget cuts. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In a statement Wednesday, DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said the DOE had been tasked with cutting an additional 10% from the biennium budget, which would mean a total loss of $264 million per year.

“With 94% of the Department’s funds spent directly by or for activities at the school level, these cuts will be felt by students,” she said.

The DOE comprises 257 schools, a system that reaches 161,000 students, nearly half of whom are considered low-income. Another 12,100 children attend the state’s 37 public charter schools, which are also publicly funded.

The DOE is proposing to trim $95 million, or 10%, from weighted student formula funding, which refers to dollars that go directly to schools, starting next fiscal year, and $24.5 million from special education instruction, a 9% cut.

Kishimoto on Thursday echoed the teachers union’s contention that these two reductions alone would lead to a loss of at least 1,000 teaching positions.

“We’ll know that exact amount and what the impact is on schools as they finish and complete their school academic and financial plans (by the end of this month),” she said at the meeting.

Other areas identified for cuts include school behavioral health services, student athletic travel between islands, Hawaiian language immersion program offerings, athletic coaching positions, food services positions and others.

Thursday’s decision by the nine voting board members was largely pro forma.

Bruce Voss, a lawyer, said that by statute, the board has “the obligation to approve the (DOE) budget whether we like it or not,” adding that approval on Thursday was just a “first step” and that the real decisions on the DOE budget will be made during the upcoming legislative session.

Any substantive changes made to the DOE’s budget after Thursday would not be timely enough to be folded into Gov. David Ige’s state budget, which he must submit to the Legislature by Dec. 21, according to Ken Uemura, the BOE finance chairman.

The governor had a hard deadline of Friday morning to all state agencies to get their budget proposals in, according to Payne. Most had already submitted them in November. Even if the board had chosen not to vote on the DOE’s budget Thursday, the governor’s budget and finance team would have moved on it because it wanted to see preliminary numbers.

“I don’t mean to be argumentative, but what happens if we all vote no?” board member Maggie Cox asked at one point. She ended up casting “a very reluctant aye” vote due to her deep concern over how the DOE’s proposal would impact student learning.

Board of Education Margaret Cox. 10 jan 2017
BOE member Maggie Cox voted “a very reluctant aye” to approve the DOE’s proposed budget. Board members worried about the effects of deep cuts on schools. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Voss urged his fellow board members to express their concerns to lawmakers when they convene, to “help them understand why preserving (education) funds has to be the top priority this legislative session.”

“If we don’t make the case to the Legislature, we have nobody to blame but ourselves,” he said.

While board members agreed that the budget debate was not over, some pressed education officials to explain why certain programs, like Early College, which gives high school juniors and seniors the chance to accrue college credit and graduate early, were especially targeted in the DOE budget documents.

The Early College program — directly championed by Ige, who expressed the desire to see it offered in every public high school in Hawaii during his 2017 State of the State — could be looking at a $1.5 million loss in funding starting next year.

Cox said the proposed cuts would “destroy this whole program.”

Brian Hallett, the DOE’s budget director, acknowledged this hit is “problematic.”

“This is going to be a long, ongoing conversation. None of this is what we want to do, but what we are forced to do, and provide the least harm,” he told the board.

Thursday’s meeting also featured testimony from principals around the state whose schools already have been forced to make tough cuts starting this year.

Brenda Vierra-Chun, a principal at Wheeler Middle School on Oahu, said her school lost 10 teaching positions this year due to declining enrollment. Those included a 7th grade math and science teacher, language arts and social studies teacher, two special education teachers and a student support adviser, among other positions.

She said eight more positions may need to be cut in the next school year to account for a $600,000 budget deficit, calling the potential loss “an incomprehensible blow to our school community.”

Catherine Payne, a retired educator of more than 30 years who chairs the education board, offered a grim perspective of the education landscape in the years to come.

“This is not one year we are talking about. The governor has talked about at least four years of these level of cuts,” she said at the meeting.

Expressing her concern for the state’s poorest children and families due to reduced services, she said poverty was the “single biggest correlation to lower achievement” and invited further dialogue on how private sector money or grants could help plug some of these shortages.

“This is a terrible time for public education,” Payne said. “The biggest picture as it always has been is, how much do we value and prioritize as citizens of the state our public schools? Not just educators but our broader public.”

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