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Tough decisions for Hawaii schools

New state budget means $800 less per student, reducing staff, programs

Charter school administrators will have to make tough budget decisions come next school year when they are expected to receive an estimated $800 less per student.


From cutting teacher or staff positions to limiting the purchase of textbooks and computers, charter principals say their impending budget reality will have a direct affect on students.

"At the end of the school year ... we're going to have to decide who we can afford to keep," said Laara Allbrett, principal of Halau Lokahi Public Charter School in Kalihi. "I'm going to have a lot of sleepless nights."

Under the state budget recently passed by the state Legislature, Hawai'i's public charter schools will get $57 million next school year, up from roughly $51 million this year. But the increase doesn't keep up with the robust growth in enrollment that school officials anticipate for next school year, said Reshela DuPuis, executive director of the Charter School Administrative Office.

That will mean per-pupil funding for charter school students is expected to decrease to about $7,200 next school year — a 10 percent drop, she said. Charter schools currently receive about $8,000 per student.

Charter school officials attempted to take that argument to the state Capitol this session in hopes of more funding. But, in an atmosphere of slowing economic growth and declining tax revenue, their hopes weren't realized.

Lawmakers say they gave charter schools just slightly more than the $56 million that Gov. Linda Lingle had requested in her budget.

"If the charters felt that they got shortchanged by $15 million, one would think that the (Lingle administration) would have said 'We miscalculated and we're going to send down a governor's message with a new number,' " said Rep. Roy Takumi, chairman of the House education committee. "They didn't do that."

The charter schools' budget situation mirrors cuts that were made to the state Department of Education budget. Lawmakers cut about $7.7 million from the department's student support budget.

Education officials said last month that the cut could result in increased bus fares, A+ after-school program fees, school lunch prices and adult education costs.

'Significant cuts'

Charter school administrators are facing a more severe belt tightening.

"Some schools may have to make significant cuts in programs and staff. We're already hearing that schools will not be renewing staff positions," DuPuis said.

Under the current estimate of next year's per-pupil funding, a small charter school with about 100 students would get $80,400 less than it received last year.

DuPuis said not only would that mean a cut in staff, but it could mean curtailing academic programs at a school.

"Many of our charter schools are project-based, and those kinds of programs are often integrated across the curriculum. Those kinds of supplementary programs will have to go," she said.

Halau Lokahi charter school is likely to lose about $200,000 next school year, based on the school's estimated enrollment.

Lokahi principal Allbrett said the reality is that schools will have to cut staff positions.

"I've had many restless nights. You come to love the people you work with. You see everyone giving their best to support the kids," Allbrett said.

Allbrett said every dollar is important since charter schools face unique expenses that many public schools don't have to juggle.

For instance, charter schools must find and pay for their own facilities out of their annual per-pupil allotment. Halau Lokahi spends about $30,000 a month on rent and utilities for the facility it uses in Kalihi.

"If we can't afford this, the question is, where do we go?" she said.

The school also has a fleet of school buses and vans that it uses to shuttle students to and from school and to project sites.

"That's a cost. I have to employ people to drive. That's an expense many schools don't have," Allbrett said.

4 new schools

Four new charter schools have been approved for next school year. Enrollment is also expected to climb throughout the 27 established schools. Total charter school enrollment is estimated to reach more than 8,000 students next school year. That compares with 6,131 students currently.

Takumi, the state House member, said part of the challenge is that there isn't coordination between when new charter schools are approved and the legislative budget process.

"I feel for the charters. But you may want to think twice before you approve a new charter and the budget is done already," Takumi said.

Steve Hirakami, principal of Hawai'i Academy of Arts & Science, a charter school in Pahoa on the Big Island, said newer charter schools will have a harder time dealing with the lower per-pupil dollar amount.

"It comes at a time when they're going to be building and establishing their school," Hirakami said.

Hirakami said it takes several years for charter schools to accumulate the supplies, books, desks and the teacher resources that they need.

"The real schools that are going to suffer are the ones with enrollment under 80," he added. "The thing with small schools is they need the fixed costs to survive. Losing one teacher is critical."

Hirakami said he fears that some charter schools will "stack" their classes to get additional money. In other words, charter schools could accept more students to make up for reduced per-pupil funds.

Since the amount of money schools receive is based on the total enrollment in charter schools, any increase in enrollment would mean less money for other schools, he said.

"A shift in enrollment at one school will affect the whole system," Hirakami said.

Fairness argued

Tim Sullivan, whose son will be graduating from Hawai'i Academy of Arts & Science this year, said charter schools deserve their fair share of education funding.

"They're trying to keep costs down, but at the same time they're getting more students and they're trying to expand," Sullivan said. "The math doesn't seem to add up."

Historically, charter school administrators have argued that the charter school student receives significantly less than a regular public school student.

But some lawmakers and education officials disagree.

Regular public schools got an estimated $11,004 per pupil in 2005-06. But it is difficult to estimate whether charter schools receive less per pupil than regular public schools because special education and other services are provided to the charter schools by the DOE, officials say.

Takumi said he expects to use the next couple of months to investigate whether charter schools are receiving their fair share.

"With charter schools, the difficulty is, what do the charter schools deserve in terms of funding?" Takumi said. "We really have to figure out what would be an amount that is at least based upon something everyone can understand, is transparent and there is some level of equity and fairness."

Reach Loren Moreno at lmoreno@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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