The Hawaii Department of Education received some promising news Thursday when the governor lowered his target budget reduction for the state agency from 10% to 2.5%, reflecting a potential savings of $123 million to the department’s base budget over the next two fiscal years.

In a statement earlier in the day, Gov. David Ige said this adjustment was possible due to “additional federal funds and more optimistic revenue projections by the Council on Revenues,” which last met on Jan. 7.

The announcement, which could always be supplanted by actions in the state Legislature that opened its 2021 session this week and recesses at the end of April, led to cautious sighs of relief among education leaders.

The DOE had proposed the elimination of at least 1,300 school and complex-area jobs to shoulder the previously mandated 10% budget cut across individual schools.

DOE Board Member Bruce Voss.

DOE Board Member Bruce Voss welcomed the governor’s announcement of smaller than expected budget cuts but said uncertainty continues.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The new projection means that schools may be able to scale back some of the planned teacher layoffs or cuts to things like after-school activities, school counseling and even security services.

“This is very good news,” board of education member Bruce Voss said Thursday at a virtual meeting to discuss the previously proposed reorganization plan.

“But there is still tremendous uncertainty at the school level,” he said, adding that DOE schools have to return to the drawing board to redo their 2021-22 school year financial plans in light of this adjustment.

The DOE was looking at a $164 million loss to its base budget over the next two fiscal years based on an executive office request to state agencies to shave 10% from their budgets to account for revenue losses from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The DOE is still facing a $100.2 million recurring cut in the 2021-23 fiscal biennium and a $83 million shortfall to keep things like a teacher salary differential program and school food service operations going.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association, while commending the newly adjusted 2.5% reduction to the budget as “an improvement,” estimated that more than 1,100 education employees, including 688 teachers, would still lose their jobs.

Cautious Relief

Under the DOE’s staffing reduction plan released last week, nearly 1,300 DOE positions, including 800 teachers, counselors and librarians, would have been cut based on a consolidation of the system’s 257 schools’ trimmed financial plans.

“With the magnitude of the dollars associated with the cuts, really, really difficult decisions had to be made,” Cindy Covell, assistant superintendent in the DOE’s office of talent management, which handles human resources, said at Thursday’s meeting. “These additional funds will certainly help us in this area (of staffing).”

The governor’s office had no update to offer on potential furloughs, telling Civil Beat to contact the DOE for any updates.

Thursday’s all-day virtual board meeting featured a smorgasbord of agenda items, but most were tied to budget impacts from the pandemic.

Some board members called on the Department of Education to streamline its operations and figure out a way to operate more efficiently, instead of coming up with new staffing proposals in a piecemeal fashion.

Board member Ken Uemura, a certified public accountant, said the DOE should be looking “top down first” to streamline operations, then create a reorganization plan rather than cobbling one together based on new budget projections.

“To do it the way you’re doing it, I think you’re kind of doing it backwards,” he said. “The plan drives the budget, the budget doesn’t drive the plan.”

Superintendent Christina Kishimoto agreed to present a progress report to the board in February on possible reorganization scenarios.

The agency, which is the state’s largest-funded department, employs 20,991 total full-time employees, 13,300 of whom are teachers. The DOE’s core eight central offices outlined how they would try and streamline operations back in December assuming a 10% budget reduction.

The board deferred taking action on the DOE’s proposed use of $183 million in new federal stimulus funds.

Much of Thursday’s virtual testimony featured outraged remarks by teachers on the DOE’s proposal to spend $53 million of those funds on private tutors to help 25,000 students who have fallen behind in English and math due to the pandemic.

Department of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto speaks during board meeting.

Department of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto agreed to present a progress report on DOE reorganization to the board in February.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Opponents of this plan, including the teacher’s union, argued that the federal money should be prioritized for preserving teacher positions.

But Kishimoto, in impassioned remarks by the end of the marathon board meeting, said that was not a sound strategy.

“I am not proposing to hire tutors over teachers. I am asking the board to allow me to obligate these one-time funds to address learning loss,” she said.

She also clarified this is not the same proposal by which the DOE contracted with outside vendors to supply private tutors to Title 1 public schools to help students catch up, as Civil Beat first reported.

Kishimoto said she wants to put “permanent dollars” into restoring teacher positions, not federal funds that can be spent on one-time uses to drill down on the most urgent needs instead of using them on what would be just “a fix” to save teacher jobs for a year or so.

“I want to put permanent dollars back into restoring positions, not temporary dollars,” she explained. “(This) is a great opportunity to tell our families we recognize our children are so far behind … and our teachers are saying, we need more help.”

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