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Board approves heavy cuts to school budget

Chairwoman calls it a ‘terrible time in public education’

The state Board of Education on Thursday passed a biennium operating budget for 2021 to 2023 that includes a reduction of about $164 million each year, education officials confirmed Thursday afternoon.

The operating budget, which still has to be reviewed by the governor and state lawmakers, allots $1.52 billion in each of the next two fiscal years. The Department of Education’s operating budget in the current fiscal year is $1.66 billion.

Board of Education Chairwoman Catherine Payne called it a “terrible time in public education.”

Payne said the poorest students are suffering and will continue to suffer as cuts are made. She hoped that perhaps alumni and parent groups could help “fill in the gaps,” or that the DOE could seek grants.

However, this is not the last time the board will discuss the budget, and the state Legislature is also working on its own version of the state budget.

“We want the least impact on the classroom as possible. However, the cuts are so deep it’s impossible not to affect that,” Payne said during the board’s virtual meeting Thursday afternoon.

In a statement following the vote Thursday, Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said that as a state agency, DOE had to identify budget reductions of at least 10 percent for the next two years.

“That’s on top of an already $100.2 million reduction to the base budget sustained this school year, for a total budget reduction of more than $264 million in each school year beginning July 1,” she said, referring to cuts made at the Legislature that are expected to continue.

Kishimoto described DOE as “a best-practice district, with the lowest spending nationally for general administration.”

“Therefore, with 94 percent of the department’s funds spent directly by or for activities at the school level, these cuts will be felt by students,” Kishimoto said. “We will continue to reiterate that an investment in students is an investment in Hawaii’s future.”

The DOE said it’s still trying to determine how the recently approved budget will impact schools.

But the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which expressed its concern Wednesday over the reductions that include special education, said cuts to regular and special education positions could result in higher class sizes and reduced course offerings.

The teachers’ union said it has already heard from educators across the state who were notified by their principals that their schools will be losing positions for the 2021-22 school year.

“Other programs such as art, music, Hawaiian studies, Hawaiian language immersion, career and technical education, physical education, all could be reduced or eliminated,” said HSTA President Corey Rosenlee. “Class sizes could also increase, and we could see programs such as advanced placement, electives, and gifted and talented either be reduced or eliminated.”

The budget approved Thursday will head to Gov. David Ige, who will then release his executive budget with proposed budgets for all state departments later this month, the DOE said. The Legislature will use the executive budget as a starting point for composing its version of the state budget in the upcoming 2021 session.

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

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