Take care in spending stimulus funds


POSTED: Monday, March 02, 2009

FEDERAL stimulus money meant to help Hawaii's public schools get through lean times should be directed toward essential programs and services that would have been damaged by state budget cuts.

Though some of the $274.7 million anticipated to come from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is designated for specific uses, such as special education, the state administration will decide how and when to spend more 50 percent.

As state revenues began tumbling, Gov. Linda Lingle told state agencies, including the Department of Education, to reduce expenses. The department cut nearly $88 million and 253 positions and revamped some operations. Funding for textbooks, student services, literacy training for learning disabled students and security guards were discontinued. In addition, the department found cost-cutting ways to streamline and reduce bureaucracy.

The federal funds will allow the school system to restore some valuable programs, but officials need to make careful choices. Spending should be aimed at students and classroom instruction. Moreover, officials should not expect that funding to keep flowing. Putting money down on ventures that cannot be reasonably sustained would be wasteful.

The state will have discretion to use more than half of the money, called stabilization funds. It can dole it out over two fiscal years or expend it for current initiatives. But officials will have to explain their reasons to the federal government.

The Obama administration has given notice to local officials that it will keep watch on expenditures, requiring transparency and school reform plans in exchange for the financial help. It's a fair trade.