Tough Questions For The Hawaii Department Of Education

As we look toward the opening of the Legislature on Jan. 20, state legislators will once again be reviewing the Hawaii Department of Education’s budget.

At the direction of the governor, the HIDOE’s proposed operating budget for the fiscal biennium 2021-2023 includes a $164.3 million cut.

Of that $164.3 million, $95 million is at the school level.

The HIDOE’s separate furlough plan, albeit momentarily delayed, represents an additional $128.5 million cut and impacts 22,000 employees, 13,000 of which are teachers.

Although making budget reductions is challenging — requiring hard work, effective leadership, community outreach and focused engagement of the HIDOE’s financing and accounting professionals — we believe there are ways of making budget reductions without impacting schools.

Out of $3 billion in annual resources, is it possible for the HIDOE to mitigate furloughs and school-level cuts by cutting other expenditures?

Has the HIDOE considered alternative ideas to teacher furloughs and school-level cuts? If so, what are they and what is the status of each one?

One cost-cutting measure not mentioned is reviewing all spending decisions made in the years prior to the pandemic-induced budgetary shortfall. Decisions could be examined to see if they 1) still make sense given changed conditions and 2) involve monies not yet fully expended or committed.

Hokulani Elementary School kids.

Students at Hokulani Elementary School in pre-COVID-19 times.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

If the funds supporting these prior decisions are not yet fully expended or committed, say by contract, then it may be possible to reverse those past spending decisions and use those funds to help fill the budget gap.

Think of this process in personal finance terms. Assume that prior to the pandemic, you and your spouse had agreed to purchase a new car to replace an aging one. But you had not yet acted on that purchase. Then the pandemic hit, and you or your spouse were laid off. Now, instead of using saved funds to purchase that new car, you decide to use those funds to meet higher priority commitments like house payments, utilities and food.

Has the HIDOE considered obtaining emergency approval to change the purpose of some spending plans, for items that have not yet been expended? Has the HIDOE considered a cooperative approach to get vendors to modify outstanding contracts?

In the HIDOE data made available to the Education Institute of Hawaii under the public records law, it appears there were around $80 million in open encumbrances in fiscal year 2017 — monies reserved for a purpose but not yet expended — designated for the purpose of “instructional supplies.” Are there similar large amounts encumbered in fiscal year 2020?

With distance learning over the last year, could it be possible — because students were home and not in classrooms — that some of those funds might no longer be needed for that purpose and might be available and used to fill the budget gap to reduce the number of furloughed teachers?

Teacher furloughs are now postponed until July. What can we do to ensure teacher furloughs and school level cuts are avoided altogether? When a teacher is furloughed, the school day is disrupted and our students suffer.

When cuts are made at the school level, children suffer the most and lose additional support and experiences, and we will live with the consequences to our community’s well-being and potential for future growth.

What have the HIDOE and the state done to work together this past year? What longer term ideas are being worked on to assure fiscal sustainability and consistency?

As legislators gather to formulate their decisions for public education funding, there are three essential questions to consider:

1) Are teacher furloughs and school level cuts being handled as an emergency situation?

2) What kind of systems thinking is being applied towards the HIDOE and is it in line with Hawaii’s long-term strategic goals?

3) How can values guide our decisions?

These are tough questions worth asking. The end goal is to coalesce the best ideas from all sources and diverse interests in a manner that reflects our values.

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