The Hawaii State Department of Education’s top financial officer told the Board of Education Thursday that the teachers' union correctly described congressional restrictions on reducing public school budgets after the state accepted hundreds of millions of dollars in federal pandemic aid.

Brian Hallet, assistant superintendent of HIDOE’s Office of Fiscal Services and chief financial officer, told BOE members, “I think Corey did a pretty good job summarizing Section 317 of the Consolidated Appropriation Act of 2021,” referring to previous testimony from Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee.

On Tuesday, Rosenlee and HSTA attorney Colleen Hanabusa, a former congresswoman, held a news conference to explain Congress prohibited budget cuts to public education in its multibillion-dollar pandemic stimulus bills, making illegal the governor and school superintendent’s plans to slash millions from Hawaii public school budgets next school year. 

Answering questions about HSTA’s concerns at a BOE meeting Thursday, Hallet explained that the federal legislation “says a state shall provide assurances that such state will maintain support for elementary and secondary education for fiscal year 22, which is the first year of the biennium we're planning for, at least at the proportional level of state support for elementary and secondary education with the average from fiscal year 17, 18, and 19.

“Looking at just the executive budget, we know that the DOE has been on average 23 percent of the state's budget, and looking at this year's budget in brief, we know that's not the case anymore. It's declined to 21 percent,” Hallet added.

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Earlier on Thursday, Gov. David Ige had announced he would restore $123 million in planned public school budget cuts because of expected federal aid and improving state revenues, but another $140 million worth of budget cuts could still mean ending and reducing school programs while hundreds of teachers and other school employees would lose their jobs next school year.

Hallet told the BOE, “As Corey mentioned, the additional $123 (million) coming back from the governor is certainly going to help, but ultimately it will be the final appropriations that come out of the Legislature that will be the test, that I believe will be looked at for judging whether the state is meeting the maintenance of effort or not.” 

Hallet was referring to what’s called “maintenance of effort” language Congress included in its coronavirus stimulus bills that requires the state to fund education at the same proportional rate as the state had in the three previous fiscal years before COVID-19 hit. Another portion of the bill says that local education agencies also “shall, to the greatest extent practicable, continue to pay its employees and contractors during the period of any disruptions or closures related to coronavirus.”

The governor could seek a waiver of those federal restrictions from the U.S. secretary of education, Hallet said. President Joe Biden has nominated Miguel Cardona, the commissioner of public schools in Connecticut who taught fourth grade before becoming a principal, as education secretary.

“What would be unknown there is whether the secretary of education, under what criteria or what conditions may they accept that, or approve a waiver or not. We haven't seen guidance on that so it's definitely an issue to watch. It seemed Congress was fairly clear on their expectations that they did not want to see a disproportionate (amount) of state cuts made against the education budget,” Hallet added. 

Board of Education members said Thursday they planned to hold a separate briefing to discuss HSTA’s concerns about the federal restrictions in the future.

Governors and education departments in other states, such as Wisconsin and Connecticut, have prohibited school districts from reducing salaries or laying off school staff if they accepted federal stimulus money for public schools.