School-year saga


POSTED: Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The thought of cutting the school year dismays education officials who have fought for years to extend instructional time for Hawaii students, and are loath to lose hard-won gains.

But with Gov. Linda Lingle ordering the Department of Education to cut another $110 million from next year's budget and telling other state departments to furlough workers for three days each month, every cost-saving option is on the table. Teachers work a nine-month schedule, which translates to 27 furlough days a year, under Lingle's proposal.

Board of Education Chairman Garrett Toguchi said cutting that deep was simply unacceptable and urged Lingle and the state Legislature to raise the general excise tax to help close the budget gap.

If the Department of Education is forced to furlough teachers and principals, it should look first at professional development days or other waiver days when students are not on campus, said BOE Vice Chairwoman Karen Knudsen, a board member since 1990, who has long pushed for more instructional time and recalls how past teacher contracts hinged on the issue.

“;We have to preserve as much instructional time as possible, while realizing that staff development time also is important,”; said Knudsen, adding that she expects an initial public discussion of the budget cuts at tomorrow's board meeting. “;Obviously the department can't do this unilaterally and we want to work closely with the unions. But we must do all we can to preserve ... instructional time that is absolutely imperative in terms of student achievement.”;

While the budget cuts were not unexpected, she said, “;the magnitude is still stunning. And we have been making cut after cut while expectations (for the schools) continue to rise,”; Knudsen said yesterday, adding that the DOE cannot absorb the cuts simply by eliminating all waiver and professional development days. “;There aren't enough, for one thing. The cuts are too deep. Plus, there are times teachers must be on campus when students aren't. The day before school starts, for example.”;

The latest cuts bring to $394 million the amount that must be cut from the DOE's $1.8 billion budget. The department has some 21,000 employees, serving about 180,000 public school students.

In 1997, then-Gov. Ben Cayetano made lengthening the school year the focus of the state's negotiations with the Hawaii State Teachers Association. A strike was averted at the last minute with a contract settlement that added seven instructional days — starting in September 1998 — and substantially raised teachers' pay.

But those gains were eroded in April 2001, when as part of the deal that ended the 20-day teachers' strike, four of those seven instructional days were converted to professional development days.

Still, instructional time in Hawaii's public schools remained about average for the U.S., according to the Digest of Education Statistics. The minimum school year for Hawaii students was 179 days in 2006, down from 183 days in 2004 and 184 days in 2000, according to the digest, compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics. Kansas' public schools had the most instructional days in 2006 — 186 — and North Dakota had the fewest, 173.

The DOE's Web site lists 190 teacher days and 178 student days for the current school year in Hawaii's public schools; the 2009-2010 official calendar lists 190 teacher days and 180 student days.

Any changes must be settled quickly, as the new session begins in late July on many campuses.

“;We are well aware of the huge impact this is having not only on DOE employees, but on every family who has a child in a public school,”; Knudsen said. “;And I expect that our schools are going to see a lot of the trickle-down effects of these massive budget cuts across the state departments, as incomes drop and other problems arise.”;

HSTA president Roger Takabayashi did not a return a phone call yesterday seeking comment, but the teachers union had issued a press release the day before saying that “;the governor's proposal to furlough teachers will have an significant impact on student learning. ... It will be difficult to re-capture this lost learning later and will affect their academic achievement, with possible long-term impact on their future.”;