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Tuesday, January 9, 2001

State of Hawaii

School spending
a big test for
state lawmakers

The schools superintendent
has asked the Legislature
for an extra $164 million

By Crystal Kua

It'll be a financial balancing act for state lawmakers looking to make education a priority this session.

"The challenge is that you have many good places to use the funds, and we as legislators have to choose," Senate Education Chairman Norman Sakamoto said.

From charter schools to computers to teacher and principal shortages to repair and maintenance to special education, money appears to be at the heart of many key education issues slated to be taken up by the state Legislature this year.

At budget hearings yesterday, state schools superintendent Paul LeMahieu asked lawmakers for an extra $164 million to fund items not included in the governor's proposed $1.3 billion education budget over the next two years.

Gov. Ben Cayetano's proposed education budget sets priorities in spending money on computers, textbooks and about $10 million worth of department initiatives.

Committees will study both proposals

The governor's budget includes about 9 percent of the department's extra request, LeMahieu said.

The chairmen of the House and Senate money committees yesterday said they'll be scrutinizing both the governor's executive budget and the department's request as they begin the process of deciding what programs to fund.

"At least in our committees, we might be able to identify what could work better -- how about this mechanism that costs less or how can we do more with the same money," Sakamoto said.

It's also a year in which pay raises for teachers, principals and other government workers could take up a chunk of the same money for which education programs are competing.

Besides salaries, costs are also rising for the Felix consent decree, the federal mandate that covers improvements to educational and other services for special-needs students. The department is asking for $41 million in emergency funds for the current fiscal year and $153 million in funds over the next two years.

"The big one is Felix, the funding mechanism. We've got to get this behind of us," said House Education Chairman Ken Ito.

"We want to help special (education) kids but we have to come to some common ground and at the same time get out of the consent decree."

Sakamoto (D, Moanalua) sees six main areas of discussion. They include school facilities, teacher quality, administrator shortages, schools and students.

School facilities includes repair and maintenance items. Sakamoto would like to see the state's $600 million backlog of repair and maintenance work orders settled while making sure that new facilities don't fall by the wayside.

"Money is one of the issues but some of it is changing some of the procurement mechanisms to allow for better use of the dollars," Sakamoto said.

Ito said he likes the governor's priority on computer infrastructure and its link to repair and maintenance.

The education committees will also revisit the charter school law to see if it needs to be revamped. Charter school issues include funding, staffing and whether there should be a moratorium placed on charter school approvals until some of the issues can be worked out.

"We passed the law. Now, what is its impact, what can we do to make it better," Ito said.

Keeping teachers also a priority

Lawmakers say figuring out ways to attract and retain teachers and administrators to deal with expected shortages is also a priority.

Increasing the numbers in clerical and other kinds of help can also assist overburdened principals and teachers, Sakamoto said.

"I'm not saying that we throw warm bodies at every problem," Sakamoto said. "But we need staff."

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