Furlough Days Ahead

School days lost to budget cuts
By Megan Stephenson

With growing budget deficits and diminishing options, the state has turned to the Department of Education for help. The Molokai High School (MHS) athletic budget already took severe losses, but this time, education budget cuts are hitting even deeper. Last week, a decision was settled between the Department of Education (DOE) and the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) to furlough teachers, cutting 17 days from this school year and the same next year, beginning on Oct. 23, 2009. That means schools across the state will be closed every other Friday.

Representatives from the HSTA and the DOE pointed out that the furlough agreement was the best-case scenario for a terrible year of budget cuts. But many parents disagree.

MHS parent and school Community Council member Louise Manley said she was alarmed. Another MHS parent Tina Rawlins expressed disappointment. Manley said the state is already behind in educational standards, especially Molokai, and she questions how lessons are to be accomplished in four days.

“It’s got to make an impact in a negative way,” she said.

Crunching the Numbers
The State of Hawaii, the DOE, the Board of Education and the HSTA agreed on a furlough contract last week. The cuts will help lower the budget shortfalls, said Sandy Goya of the DOE. She said the Department needs to cut $468 million over the next two years, or about 14 percent of the budget. The furloughs will result in about eight percent savings, according to a press release by Governor Linda Lingle.

The 13,000 teachers in Hawaii’s public schools will receive a nearly eight percent pay cut annually, but no other benefits will be affected. HSTA union members approved contract by 80 percent of the vote.

“The other options were much worse,” said Bob Underwood, the representative for Molokai on the HSTA’s Board of Directors. “This was the most positive thing that could have happened” instead of major pay cuts or layoffs, according to Underwood.

Teachers will need to reorganize their lesson plans for the week and per day, said Kaunakakai Elementary principal Janice Espiritu. But Espiritu agreed with Underwood that furloughs are the best option.

“The alternative, if said no [to the contract], is to strike. It’s a lose-lose. Somewhere on the line, you have to backup your no,” she said.

The DOE estimates that as a result of the state-imposed budget restrictions, they will be able to save $117 million this school year through pay cuts, hiring freezes, and the negotiated furloughs.

Feeling the Loss
Even as the lesser of two evils, any type of reduction in class time will affect the students, said Goya. Molokai’s non-charter schools that will be affected by the changes will not be able to provide any programming on furlough days. Afterschool tutoring run by the school will not be held on furlough Fridays, and neither will A-plus programming provided by the DOE for non-charter schools.

“Certain students do need extra help, so of course this will affect them,” Espiritu said.

Currently, the Molokai Youth Center is the only facility able to accommodate any children whose parents cannot take them on furlough days. Site coordinator Sybil Tollefsen said they are in the process of reorganizing the activities available for the potential influx of kids. They serve children ages five to 18.

Espiritu said so far, parents have been supportive of the school; “They know it’s out of our hands.” But not all parents are supportive of the furlough contract.

Manley is a parent of five children, one of whom is a tenth grader at MHS. She said at first she understood that budget cuts happen to everyone. But, she said, “The more I think about it, the angrier I seem to be getting.”

Underwood was more optimistic about his restructuring. As a first-grade teacher at
Kaunakakai Elementary, he believes the level of education will remain the same. Kaunakakai was already in the process of restructuring, and he said he runs his lesson plans one day at a time.

But other teachers are not so thrilled. One Molokai teacher said the information about closing schools on Fridays is misleading. She said with most Molokai schools, the buildings will remain open and some staff will still be present even though classes are not taking place. She said it did not seem fair to cut classes and teacher salaries while other staff will still be working and money be spent on electricity.

“The best scenario would be no furloughs at all,” Goya concluded. “I hope the economy will recover in the short term, and we can once again offer 180 days of instruction.”

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