Hard Times in Hawaii Mean Less Money for Schools

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A seven-year slump in Hawaii's economy has taken its toll on state government funding and may force the department of education to make deep cuts in programs.

The state school board says it needs $30 million in supplementary funding for fiscal 1999, on top of the $709 million budget already approved at the beginning of the biennium.

Not only is that increase unlikely, the department may end up with less than it was promised.

The House has proposed a cut of 3.5 percent, or $25 million, for 1999 and the Senate ways and means committee has asked department officials how they would deal with a cut of 10 percent, or $71 million.

Those developments usher in a new era for state education officials, who are accustomed to receiving supplemental funding.

State at a Glance: Hawaii

Population: 1.2 million
Governor: Benjamin J. Cayetano (D)
State superintendent: Herman Aizawa
Number of K-12 students: 189,000
Number of K-12 public school districts: 1
Fiscal 1998 K-12 budget: $710 million

"This is the first time that they've been told, 'Your supplemental needs will have to be accommodated by your current service budget,'" said Charles Toguchi, the chief of staff for Gov. Benjamin J. Cayetano and a former superintendent for Hawaii's public schools, a single statewide system that enrolls 189,000 students.

The education department was counting on the $30 million to begin operating several new schools and meet a court order for improving special education, said Mitsugi Nakashima, a state board member.

He said educators must now pare down existing programs to cover those needs.

"I don't think there's much left to cut without cutting programs," Mr. Nakashima said. "Eventually we'll have to do some reduction in personnel, because that's where the bulk of the department's budget rests."

Class Sizes Debated

The first attempt by the board and outgoing state Superintendent Herman Aizawa to show where cuts could be made--just to make up for the lack of supplemental funding--met with public outcry.

They proposed increasing the average size of K-2 classes from 21 to 24 students, for a savings of $10.4 million.

But teachers and parents denounced the idea, which runs counter to efforts in many states, including California, and a national effort, proposed by President Clinton, to decrease class sizes.

In response, the board voted to refer the proposal to a committee for reconsideration.

"The message has been sent loud and clear: 'That is not an acceptable way to handle our budget problems,'" Karen Knudsen, the board chairwoman, said.

The House, in its draft budget, also said that increasing class size is an unacceptable solution.

Mr. Aizawa, who developed the idea with a group of teachers and principals, said he still believes it is the best way to solve the department's budget problems.

Research shows class size has a positive impact only if a class is as small as 15 students, said Mr. Aizawa, who will leave his position June 30. In tough times, it makes sense to increase class size by "one or two students," he said.

Little Yen for Travel

Hawaii is experiencing economic woes at a time when most state economies are booming. It's the only state that received lower revenues last year than it projected, according to the National Governors' Association.

Mr. Toguchi, Gov. Cayetano's aide, attributed the economic problems to a decline in tourism, the state's No. 1 industry. The fall in the value of the Japanese yen has deeply affected tourism from Japan, traditionally a staple for the Hawaiian economy, he said.

"There's less buying power," he said. "The tourists are not spending as many days in Hawaii. They're not spending as many dollars per visit."

The downfall in the economy has severely affected all state government agencies.

"The governor is saying, 'I want to give preference to education. These are difficult times. I'm cutting other departments by 10 percent, but the department of education will stay the same,'" Mr. Toguchi said.

Rep. David Stegmaier, the chairman of the House education committee, said "the jury is still out" on how much funding the education department will receive. While the legislature hopes to pass a new budget before it adjourns on May 5, Mr. Stegmaier said it may have to hold a special session.

The Democratic lawmaker added that he believes the department has some room to make cuts, but "it's not to the tune of 10 percent."

Ms. Knudsen, the board chairwoman, said she sees the need for a "systematic approach" to coming up with reductions. She conceded that the proposal to increase class size was drawn up hastily to meet a deadline set by legislators.

"Folks have been quick to say, 'Do away with athletics or cheerleading,'" Ms. Knudsen said. "If we attempt to do that, we would have another constituency coming out to advocate for those programs."

To avoid creating another public storm, the board refused to respond to the Senate ways and means committee's request concerning a possible $71 million budget reduction.

Until the legislature decides what the budget will be, "we don't want to put the public through this agony," Ms. Knudsen said. "It just sends panic."

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