Bill to aid struggling remote schools dies

Still, it got a hearing for the first time

Hana High and Elementary School with three levels of education – elementary, intermediate and high school – is at a disadvantage in the current enrollment-based funding system. And the school will be losing some of the reserve funds it had been receiving based on a policy change. Hana High and Elementary photo

A bill that would have provided additional money to rural Maui County schools in Hana, Lanai and Molokai, which say they are shortchanged in the education funding process, has died in the Legislature.

Still, there are positives even in defeat.

The bill’s author, Sen. J. Kalani English, whose district includes Hana, Molokai, Lanai and Upcountry, said he has been introducing similar bills since the state Department of Education employed the “Weighted Student Formula” in 2006 to provide funding for the schools based on student enrollment.

This is the first year that his bill has had a hearing, passing the Senate Education Committee. The bill died when it failed to garner a hearing in the Senate Ways and Means Committee before Thursday, when bills had to be approved by the Senate and sent over to the House for consideration.

Even though the measure failed, English is pleased the bill got a hearing.

J. KALANI ENGLISH Offers bill to help remote schools

“Now it’s out there, people are aware of it,” he said.

A committee report on Senate Bill 692 noted that budgetary shortfalls at Hana High and Elementary have resulted in “the loss of several well-qualified teachers and has threatened the school’s ability to offer minimum course requirements for students.”

The bill would have ensured that remote schools are funded to maintain minimal personnel and resources necessary to graduate students. Remote schools are defined in the bill as being at least one-hour’s drive away from the next nearest public high school or located on the island of Lanai, Molokai or Niihau.

The Weighted Student Formula offers schools a baseline amount of money per student with additional funding or, “weights,” based on different students’ needs and characteristics, according to the DOE’s website. The Committee on Weights, composed of teachers, administrators and community members, can decide to provide more funding to a school.

But smaller schools, especially in rural and isolated communities like Hana, Molokai and Lanai with smaller enrollments, receive less funding.

“I’m really trying to work hard to give a fair education and a decent education to the people in the remote areas. I will continue to work on this as long as I’m here,” English said.

He said his bill would provide a permanent source of funding for those schools.

State Rep. Lynn DeCoite, whose district includes East Maui, Lanai and Molokai, introduced a similar measure in the House, but it never gained traction. DeCoite could not be reached for comment this week.

The DOE has attempted to assist remote and smaller schools by offering an opportunity for the schools to apply for more funding than alloted under the weighted formula to meet shortfalls.

The problem is that larger schools in more urban areas in the state also tap the Weighted Student Formula Reserve Fund and reduce the pot, say recently retired Hana High and Elementary Principal Rick Paul and Lanai High and Elementary Principal Elton Kinoshita.

Last April, the Committee on Weights tried to deal with that issue by allotting $2.25 million in reserve funds to eight rural schools beginning next school year. No applications would be needed as in the past.

Molokai High, Molokai Middle and Maunaloa, Kaunakakai and Kilohana elementary schools on Molokai; Lanai High and Elementary and Hana High and Elementary were among the eight schools.

Each school will receive $250,000 from the fund for three school years beginning with the 2019-2020 year, according to information from the DOE.

The reaction to the news of receiving $250,000 without a lengthy application process depended on the school. Paul, who retired in December, said Hana will actually lose funding. Under the old process, Hana received about $280,000 a year from the reserve fund.

According to the DOE, Hana High and Elementary received $293,000 for fiscal year 2017-18 and $281,000 for 2016-17 from the Weighted Student Formula Reserve Fund.

Paul said the school is unique because it has about 360 students in kindergarten to 12th grade. If the 360 students were just in elementary, intermediate or high school, his budget would be OK.

But with three different types of students, Hana needs three sets of teaching staffs and the school’s numbers do not generate the funding needed to sustain all the staffing needs, Paul said.

For this school year, the school was alloted about $2.4 million under the weighted formula, said Paul. Before the weighted formula was put in place, Paul said his budget was a little more than $3 million.

The weighted formula may work for 98 or 99 percent of the schools, but it does not work for Hana with all grades from elementary to high school, he said.

“We are an inch deep and a mile wide,” Paul said, whose replacement is Christopher Sanita on temporary assignment.

It especially gets tough at the high school level because electives have to be offered to meet graduation requirements, he said. Teachers often have to stretch out of their comfort zones.

For example, Paul said an English teacher may teach only four periods of English at his high school, compared to six periods at a larger school due to the difference in enrollment. At Hana, the teacher would have two free periods, and “they have to pick up electives,” he said.

“All my core teachers. . . . they may teach in areas they don’t care for,” Paul said.

Given the limited staffing and expertise, Hana doesn’t have the wide array of electives. There is only one art teacher, and Hawaiian is the only elective language class.

The $280,000 from the reserve fund was enough to maintain the status quo but not enough to hire the staffing he would have liked, Paul said. And now, the amount is being reduced.

On top of that, there are teacher recruitment issues, especially with a shortage of affordable housing, he said. Even Hana residents are looking for places to rent.

Similar issues plague Maunaloa Elementary School on Molokai. Principal Joe Yamamoto says the school lacks a counselor, a certified librarian and a student services coordinator because of insufficient funding.

Maunaloa has requested additional money from the reserve fund and received $90,000 to $100,000 annually, he said.

Maunaloa is the smallest elementary school in Maui County this school year with around 40 students. It received $469,000 under the weighted student formula.

By comparison, the largest elementary school in Maui County, Kahului Elementary School, with around 1,220 students, received $5.4 million, according to the DOE.

With the small enrollment, Yamamoto works with a small pot of money. He combines classes, such as lumping two grade levels into one class, to make the funding work.

He worries that his students are not receiving the experiences and opportunities that students in schools with larger budgets and better access to programs are.

Families in Maunaloa are 16 miles from Kaunakakai and have to drive that far to get fairly decent prices on needed supplies. Gas prices hover around $5 per gallon, and two bags of groceries cost more than $100, he said.

Yamamoto commended Complex Area Superintendent Lindsay Ball for bringing state officials to his school and other remote schools to help decision-makers understand their story and what it is like to “live in the community day in and day out.”

Yamamoto supported English’s bill and has watched his bills in the past receive no notice in the Legislature.

Lanai High and Elementary School runs into challenges similar to Hana High and Elementary but is a larger school by about 200 students and has a larger pot of money from which to work.

Still, “anytime they give (funding) per pupil. . . . it never works out for small schools,” Kinoshita said.

Lanai High and Elementary has around 560 students, according to a matrix from the DOE on its Weighted Student Formula. The school’s allocation this academic year was around $3.4 million.

Last school year, Lanai High and Elementary received about $150,000 from the reserve fund.

If Kinoshita did not receive the reserve funds, he would have to cut three to four teachers with the Hawaiian language and culture teacher and one English Language Learners teacher, who assists those with limited English proficiency, on the block.

He is aware, though that cutting the Hawaiian language and culture teacher would have the students and community in an uproar.

“I could (only) meet the bare minimum of what I need,” he said if he had no reserve funds.

The extra $100,000 from the reserve fund next school year without an application process will be welcomed, he said.

Even with the boost in funding, Kinoshita said English’s bill is still needed, especially if it allows the state Department of Education to figure out how to take care of schools, such as Hana.

“It would say yes, it puts it to the forefront,” Kinoshita said. “It’s law and it needs to be dealt with.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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