Legislators boost call for schools funding
Two key senators want schools to get a larger share of a projected surplus
Key state legislators are throwing their support behind Department of Education calls to use the state budget surplus for a big injection of money into public schools.
Sen. Brian Taniguchi said yesterday that legislative leaders last week resolved in a meeting that the department had suffered enough in the tight budgets of recent years.
"A lot of what (the DOE) is asking for looks like basic nuts-and-bolts things that they really need," said Taniguchi, who is chairman of Ways and Means, the Senate's finance committee.
"We should do something significant for education when we have the chance," he said.
Taniguchi said he wants to see more money allocated to reduce class sizes and diverted back into regular education after years of court-ordered increased spending on special education stemming from the Felix consent decree, which ended last year.
"Now is the time we need to help regular education catch up. That's an area that is really underfunded," he said.
While not offering specifics, he also said the overall education "pie" needs to help offset the impact of the Weighted Student Formula, a new way of dividing school funding.
The formula will increase funding to some schools, but at the expense of others, including many that are already struggling academically.
"How can we go into the community as legislators with the Weighted Student Formula taking away money from a school that needs more resources, not less? We need to deal with that issue," he said.
The DOE plans to seek nearly $450 million in new funding in a supplemental budget request when the Legislature meets beginning later this month.
More than $350 million would go toward addressing a festering $525 million backlog of repair and maintenance in schools.
Another $94 million in operating funds will be requested for items ranging from increased electricity bills to the costs of implementing a single statewide school calendar.
In her executive budget proposal, Gov. Linda Lingle countered with a proposed $138.8 million in total new funding.
Sen. Norman Sakamoto, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, plans to introduce new initiatives aimed at eliminating the repair and maintenance backlog or at least get it down to a manageable level.
In a list of education priorities, he proposed $455 million worth of funding over the next three years to help "extinguish" the backlog.
He also called for an unspecified amount of new funding for more resource teacher positions to reduce overall teacher-student ratios.
"This initiative will assure that classroom teachers will be supported, assisted and partnered with other teachers or classroom help to teach our students more effectively," Sakamoto's education package said.
Taniguchi acknowledged that the DOE faces competition from other agencies seeking some of the state surplus, estimated to swell to nearly $600 million at the end of the current fiscal year due to the continued strong state economy.
Legislators also may face pressure from those supporting Lingle's calls for big refunds to taxpayers.
Moreover, the Legislature cannot divvy up the entire surplus in a single year, he said, favoring a six-year outlook.
But the signals from the Legislature are raising hopes in the department of an end to "a decade or more tightening belt and keeping up with current expenses," said DOE spokesman Greg Knudsen.
"It's been quite a while since we had the chance to look at some of our needs and really make some progress," he said.