alarms isle principals
Schools wait in limbo as the BOE
» Small, rural schools would lose
wrangles over a funding formula
The state Board of Education's failure to agree on a controversial new public school funding formula is causing alarm at schools that need a resolution fast so officials can begin planning budgets and programs for next year.
"We're extremely concerned at the school level," said Principal Catherine Payne, of Farrington High School, which actually stands to gain handsomely from the so-called weighted student formula -- about $1.3 million in additional funds annually.
"Whether you're getting a lot of extra money or you're looking at budget cuts, you need time for thoughtful planning on how to deal with that impact, and (the delay) makes that very difficult," Payne said.
Schools must finish academic and financial plans for the 2006-07 school year by late December.
But they still do not know how much money they will have to work with because the formula remains in limbo amid board hand-wringing over the sizable budget cuts it will cause at mostly smaller schools in rural areas. Some struggling schools undergoing federally mandated "restructuring" also would see cuts.
The formula, mandated by the 2004 Reinventing Education Act, or Act 51, strives to reapportion funding based on individual student need by assigning greater "weights" to students considered more costly to educate, such as the poor, the learning-disabled and those still learning English.
Board members had hoped to approve the system last May to give schools a full year to adjust, but members have continually balked at endorsing the plan and the board remains deeply divided. A vote last week ended in a 5-5 deadlock.
"The timing is getting critical now, but it looks like we're back where we started," board Chairman Breene Harimoto said.
Board member Garrett Toguchi faults the Department of Education, saying it has not adequately responded to his and other board members' repeated requests to ease the impact by adjusting the formula or explain how the proposed budget cuts would affect school personnel and programs.
"All we hear is, 'Here are the numbers, and trust us when we say that schools will just have to deal with it.' That doesn't sit well with us," Toguchi said.
"If the department is not willing to take the responsibility to minimize the negative impact, we'll have to take it upon ourselves to tweak the formula and get something done," he said.
Act 51 mandated that a Committee on Weights be formed to recommend the shape of the formula, but the formula itself is not set in stone.
Controversy erupted this summer when department projections indicated some schools would lose up to 50 percent of their discretionary spending. Newer versions using updated enrollment projections show a less pronounced impact but also have added to the confusion at schools trying to plan ahead.
Randy Moore, the department's point person on implementing Act 51, said the board has "not spoken with one voice" on the matter, complicating efforts to find a middle ground.
The percentage cuts also are not as alarming as they seem, he said. Of the money going to individual schools, only about 70 percent is expended by the principal, and the weighted student formula affects only about two-thirds of that.
He adds the fiddling with the formula would defeat its intent: that schools should receive their fair share and learn to adjust to that.
"If the objective is to minimize the impact, then why have a formula?" Moore said. "I haven't seen anything saying that a small school can't function with the level of funding the formula dictates."
But the formula does not take into account the higher costs of doing business in rural areas and that small schools lack the economies of scale that big schools enjoy, said Principal Catherine Bratt, of 282-student Kohala High School, which stands to lose $711,000.
"If you compare our programs with Farrington's catalog, we're really basic in terms of what we can offer," she said, adding that the formula is "too Draconian for small schools to handle."
Board Chairman Harimoto said he wants to see the formula approved as is and then use the expected impact to fuel requests for more overall funding in the coming Legislative session. He said the formula also can be adjusted annually if problems arise.
"We can't know the impact until schools go through the process," he said.
Adding to the urgency is that this is the first year in which school plans are being devised with input from School Community Councils now being introduced at schools statewide, another aspect of Act 51.
Farrington's Payne said the councils, which include parent, faculty and community members, are still working to "get up to speed" on how schools work.
"To keep putting a decision off and then only give them a few weeks to deal with it makes it so hard on them," she said, adding that it was "far too late" for a meaningful dialogue over the schools' plan.
Gerald Teramae of Jarrett Middle School, which stands to lose about 30 percent of discretionary spending, said the school has no choice but to go ahead with planning based on that projection, saying Jarrett will "prepare for the worst but expect the best."
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Small, rural schools
would lose funds
Listed below are the schools that would see the largest percentage reductions in school-level discretionary budgets under a new statewide school funding formula. The funding changes affect only about two-thirds of the money expended by school principals, who control about 70 percent of each school's total budget.
| Laupahoehoe High and Elementary
| Nahienaena Elementary
| Liliuokalani Elementary
| Kilohana Elementary
| Haaheo Elementary
| Paauilo Elementary & Intermediate
| Hana High and Elementary
| Kohala High
| Kaaawa Elementary
| Jarrett Middle