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StarBulletin.com

State hopes stimulus can ease school cuts


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POSTED: Friday, February 27, 2009

Hawaii's public school system, which is eliminating $87.9 million and 253 positions to save the state money, could rescue some of its threatened programs and jobs through the federal stimulus package.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is expected to pump some $274.7 million in education funds into the islands, according to the U.S. Education Department. More than half of the money will come in the form of so-called fiscal stabilization funds to prevent state cutbacks and layoffs.

In recent months, Hawaii's Board of Education has trimmed the $2.4 billion public schools' budget by discontinuing funding for campus security, science textbooks and other materials, custodians, charter school student services coordinators and programs such as literacy training for children with learning disabilities and teacher workshops. The Education Department has said several of the 253 positions scheduled to be slashed when the fiscal year ends June 30 are already vacant.

The cuts were made after Gov. Linda Lingle instructed state departments to lower expenses to dodge a projected $865 million deficit for the new biennial budget.

But the stimulus act could bail out some education programs and jobs, according to U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He said funds may be used to support existing education initiatives and positions on the chopping block, but the state would need to explain to the federal government the importance of saving them.

"Moneys are now being processed to be distributed, but the states would have to give some indication as to what they are going to be used for," Inouye told the Star-Bulletin last week. "So I would assume that for that, the governor would have some kind of plan."

The Lingle administration has been consulting with the Education Department to ensure basic services can be spared through stimulus funds, according to Chief of Staff Barry Fukunaga.

"The basis for these funds - and a lot of it is being dedicated toward education - is primarily to do that," he said yesterday. "It is kind of a fiscal relief to prevent cuts to key services."

Education Department Chief Financial Officer James Brese said officials are still analyzing the stimulus plan to figure out how to bring as much money as possible to Hawaii.

"Whatever we can get, we can spend," he said.

Board of Education Chairman Garrett Toguchi said while budget cuts approved by the board hurt some valuable programs, they also reduced bureaucracy in the Education Department.

He hopes the stimulus money will pay for extra instruction and services to students struggling on annual tests that help determine whether Hawaii is on track with the No Child Left Behind law. The mandate requires every child to be able to read and do math at grade level by 2014.

President Barack Obama's administration announced last week it wanted to release half of the stimulus money within 40 days and the rest within six months as long as states present comprehensive school reform plans. Some of the money is specifically designated to help schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods, or for technology and early childhood. But a big chunk of it - $40 billion - is to help states avert education cuts.

Michael Griffith, a senior school finance analyst with the Education Commission of the States, which researches and analyzes public education policy, said it is common for states to be unsure at this point about how much money they will get and for what programs because of the unprecedented size of the stimulus effort.

"If it does come in within 40 days, then your state would be able to use some of the money, and your school district, to help alleviate any cuts that were made this year," he said. "If the money doesn't come in, you might have this situation where the cuts that are made this year are going to have to stick. You can go back next year, for the '09-'10 school year, and you can replace those cuts. You can replace the money that was taken off."