"On the surface, it may seem like we have a lot more money per student, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty cost of running the school, we're pretty bare bones."

Lyndia Uchimura
Principal, Hookena Elementary on the Big Island

Linapuni Elementary School is one school facing steep funding cuts under a new formula. Teacher Colleen Uejo is surrounded by her kindergarten class, counterclockwise starting at front, Tishanna Moevale, Saphyre Bell (sitting in Uejo's lap), Chalei Smith, MaryJ Hallucky, Sosefina Tupuola, Tyrese Futialo, Elmer Rilometo and Rington Domingo.

Smaller schools
left behind

The new state funding
formula could mean cuts
in programs and services

THE WINDOW of Colleen Uejo's summer-school classroom at Linapuni Elementary looks out at the mean alleyways of the Kuhio Homes public housing, but it's a different scene inside.

Clapping their hands and slapping their thighs with gusto, her kindergartners race through a list of nursery rhymes. They are enrolled in a free summer program bankrolled by the tiny school's own funds that offers a safe summer haven for the children of working immigrant families.

But Principal Helen Wong wonders for how long.

She might have to start charging for the program or cut it entirely as the Kalihi school prepares for budget cuts under a new statewide public school funding formula expected to hit smaller schools hard.

"It would be a shame -- ours is one of the only free programs out there. But we'll have to find the money somewhere," Wong said.

The funding system, known as the weighted student formula, will smooth out school funding disparities across the state when it is implemented next year. It also will award more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those with disabilities, the poor and those with limited English.

But in the process, it will dramatically reduce funding at many small schools like Linapuni, which are more expensive to run on a per-student basis and which traditionally have received extra money as a result.

This could force wrenching decisions at those schools as they are forced to cut spending on staff and programs and may ultimately increase the pressures that cause small schools to consolidate with larger ones, principals say.

"I don't know how we're going to keep operating with a $540,000 hit," says Catherine Bratt, principal of 278-student Kohala High School on the Big Island.

Linapuni Elementary School students enjoyed and reacted to a science skit during an assembly Friday.

The school's annual budget would drop by that amount -- about 27 percent of its funding -- according to Department of Education projections based on 2004-05 enrollment.

There will, of course, be plenty of winners. Of the 252 schools subject to the change -- which is mandated by the state's 2004 Reinventing Education Act -- 115 will see an increase, some by as much as 18 percent.

But 137 schools will get less money. And though smaller schools are generally believed to foster greater academic achievement, the heaviest impact will fall on them.

Of the 11 elementary schools that would lose more than 20 percent of their budget, all have enrollments of less than 250 students. The average enrollment at state elementary schools is around 325.

Smaller schools cost more to run per student because they lack the economies of scale on staffing positions and facilities maintenance enjoyed by larger schools.


Helen Wong: Says drop in funding could mean cutting school's free summer program

"On the surface, it may seem like we have a lot more money per student, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty cost of running the school, we're pretty bare bones," said Lyndia Uchimura, principal of Hookena Elementary on the Big Island, which faces a 45 percent funding loss.

The school received $9,113 per student in 2004-05. If the weighted student formula had been in place, that would have been cut to $5,005, only slightly above what most schools statewide would have received.

Hookena has consistently met stringent state and federal academic performance requirements, despite large numbers of students from poor backgrounds and with special-education needs.

With that student makeup, Uchimura was actually "surprised" that the school didn't get more money. Now, she worries about the future.

"It takes money for schools to make the gains we have over the years," she said.

Schools Superintendent Pat Hamamoto cautioned that the formula's final shape remains up to the Board of Education, which will take it up next month. Some board members have expressed serious concern about the effect on some schools.

Hamamoto noted that many small schools would gain funds. She also said it is possible that measures will be implemented to cushion the blow on those that have budgets cut. But the overriding intent of formula must be achieved.

"We have to keep in mind that the purpose of the formula is equity -- providing all schools the funding to instruct and to compete," she said.

Department officials said the cuts are partly due to lost enrollment over the years.

But Kohala High's Bratt said her enrollment has held steady at around 280. She said small schools are being punished for being small, despite evidence that smaller learning units foster greater academic achievement.

"They want equity in funding, but what we need is equity in programs," said Bratt, who fears a major loss of vocational, foreign-language, art and music programs.

Some urban school districts on the mainland already have implemented similar forms of budgeting, including Seattle, Houston and Cincinnati.

However, the formula is guaranteed to be much more wrenching in Hawaii, with its sprawling, statewide school district, said Mike Griffith, an education policy analyst with the nonprofit Education Commission of the States.

"There are differences (in mainland school districts), but they're usually within a certain range. You won't see a high school with 2,500 kids being lumped in with a high school that has 500, like you might in Hawaii," he said.

"Hawaii is going down a road that others are not."

In the long term, small schools may face pressure for radical change.

"Schools could be forced to ask, 'Can we maintain this school building? If we can't, what are our options?' Ultimately, that might mean consolidation for some schools," he said.

Linapuni's Wong is confident things won't get that bad. The K-2 school, which has 217 students, could lose nearly a third of its funding. Wong expects she will have to halve her team of eight part-time teachers.

But Linapuni will persevere, she said. "With the teachers' help, a little foresight and some planning, we'll do OK."

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