Published Online: April 16, 1997

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Hawaii Senate Backs Deep School Budget Cuts

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Educators in Hawaii fear the state's schools may see larger class sizes, fewer support services for teachers, and another postponement of new initiatives if the final state budget resembles the one approved by the Senate last week.

Although Senate leaders have yet to release many details of their budget plan for the 1998-99 biennium, they have called for cutting about $26 million out of the current education department budget over the next two years--more than $75 million, or about 6 percent, less than education officials say they need to meet the state's growing education needs.

Senate leaders said they would not cut key school programs or classroom services. But education leaders say the anticipated cuts, which come on the heels of four years of reduced education funding and increasing enrollments in Hawaii's unique statewide school system, could be devastating to the public schools.

The current budget for the education department is $696 million. The Senate version would give the department $684 million in 1998 and $682 million in 1999.

"We're happy for [the Senate] to have said they are not going to cut school programs," said state superintendent Henry M. Aizawa. "But there is no way you can reduce our budget by so many millions of dollars and stay away from school level programs."

Particularly disheartening, Mr. Aizawa said, is that the Senate's budget would eliminate more than 600 positions throughout the system. Others said that the latest attempt to whittle away at education funding will have an even greater affect on an already strained system.

"This is the worst I've seen. Education has taken hits before, but when you've already taken so many hits something like this really takes you by surprise," said Karen Knudsen, the chairwoman of the state board of education, who said school officials still did not know what specific cuts the Senate had proposed.

One ray of hope, education leaders say, is that the Senate plan would give $120 million for the renovation and expansion of Hawaii's aging and overcrowded school buildings.

The House and Senate were expected to hold a conference on the budget this week and come up with a final version before the legislative session ends late this month.

Drop in Tourism

Senate leaders, reacting to a projected $260 million revenue shortfall in the governor's proposed total budget of $6.5 billion, cut up to 8 percent out of the department budgets proposed by Democratic Gov. Benjamin J. Cayetano.

They said that the education budget fares well compared with other departments--the health and human services department would take the biggest hit under the Senate plan--and that the cuts are necessary to balance the budget in the midst of the state's continuing fiscal crisis.

"We believe that our budget is a balanced attempt to make reductions where we can, but to also preserve classroom programs," said Sen. Carol Fukunaga, who co-chairs the ways and means committee. "All the cuts are at the administrative levels."

Education department officials say, however, that the agency has lost more than 400 administrative positions in the past few years and now has only 600 administrative employees. Responsibilities that traditionally fell to the state are now being passed along to officials in districts and schools on each of Hawaii's seven inhabited islands, Ms. Knudsen said.

Two years ago, legislators cut more than $50 million from education officials' budget request for the 1995-96 biennium. Department officials say funding has not kept pace with the state's rising school population, which is projected to be 191,000 in the next school year, more than 11,000 more than four years ago. Officials expect more than 2,500 new students to enter the system each year through at least the end of the century.

"We've been experiencing cuts over the past two bienniums, which means we're down to the bone," said Evelyn Horiuchi, the director of the education department's budget office. "The problem is that the budget keeps being reduced, but our enrollment keeps increasing. It's more severe than just the dollars. We haven't had any new initiatives, no program expansions have been funded."

Ms. Fukunaga, a Democrat, said protecting education and classroom instruction were top priorities for the Senate. Many additional teaching positions state officials requested to serve a rising student population will survive the cuts, Fukunaga said, but some of those positions will be filled by teachers who have left the classroom for administrative posts.

Chambers Far Apart

The House budget proposal was much less severe. It called for cutting $100 million from the governor's budget and making minimum cuts in education spending. That budget, however, was released before a report by the state Council on Revenues predicted the revenue shortfall. Observers anticipate that the compromise will be hard fought, since the Senate and the House are so far apart on the issue.

State administrators were warned last month that their budgets would likely be cut drastically. Gov. Cayetano asked each department to outline its plans for cutting up to 8 percent from its current budget. Accordingly, the education department had proposed increasing class size from 20 students to 26 for each classroom and cutting an after-school program.

The Senate proposal would scrap more than $500 million from the governor's proposed $6.5 billion, two-year general-fund budget, including at least $200 million he requested for expanding economic development efforts in the state.

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