Deficit threatens
charter schools

The $2.5 million budget shortfall
means some schools might close

School funding

Public charter schools have their own school boards and more autonomy from the state than regular public schools.

Number of charter schools in Hawaii: 26
Projected enrollment next year: 4,944 students
Amount budgeted: $25.9 million
Amount sought: $28.4 million

A $2.5 million shortfall in funds for charter schools in the state budget just approved by the Legislature could force some campuses to shut down, charter officials said yesterday.

"We may not be able to operate next year if that's not changed," said Jim Williams, chairman of the board of Voyager Charter School, which serves 150 students in Kakaako and would face a $75,000 deficit. "It's a very serious situation."

"I don't think that the Legislature wants to see charter schools fail for lack of equitable funds," added Williams, who is also vice president for legislative affairs for the Hawaii Charter Schools Network. "That's going to be the effect for some of us."

The budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, is now on Gov. Linda Lingle's desk. It includes an allocation of nearly $25.9 million for Hawaii's 26 charter schools, or about $5,355 per pupil assuming an enrollment of 4,834 students statewide.

But the charter schools, some of which have long waiting lists, expect to have 110 more students in the next school year, or 4,944 altogether, according to the Charter Schools Network. And the per-pupil figure should be $5,736 under the law, which requires the use of the most recent Department of Education financial report, Williams said. That adds up to a total of nearly $28.4 million.

The $2.5 million shortfall works out to about $500 per student, given next year's projected enrollment.

"A number of schools have called me and said they may fold," said Dewey Kim, executive director of Hawaii's charter schools, a new state position. "We've got to do something about this."

Russell Pang, a spokesman for the governor, said Lingle is still reviewing the budget but noted that "the governor definitely believes charter schools need more money, not less."

Charter schools are public schools that operate under a charter with the state that gives them more autonomy over their operations. They have their own school boards and differ widely from campus to campus, offering students alternatives to traditional public schools.

The shortfall arose because outdated information was used in the budget request to the Legislature, according to Kim, who started his job Feb. 1. The Board of Education later approved the updated figure, but legislators did not alter their calculations.

"It looks like it's a timing mistake," Kim said. "I don't think anybody intentionally tried to make the figure lower."

Charter school advocates are working with the administration, legislators and BOE members to drum up the money.

Rep. Lynn Finnegan (R, Mapunapuna-Foster Village), whose daughter Piikea attends Voyager, is pushing to have a charter school bill now in conference committee (Senate Bill 2425, SD1, HD1) amended to include the money.

"I'm hopeful because I don't think any legislator has come out against trying to fully fund charter schools," she said. "It's just a matter of identifying how we can take care of this problem and get the funds into that bill. Gov. Linda Lingle has confirmed she will support full funding for charter schools if the Legislature provides it to her in a bill."

Steve Hirakami, principal of Hawaii Academy of Arts & Sciences in Pahoa on the Big Island, said his school would have to lay off teachers if more money is not allocated.

"The impact of using 3-year-old budget figures is huge," he said. "We're just asking for what was already approved by the Board of Education."


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