HONOLULU (KHON) — “The Legislature is extremely concerned about the situation at the Department of Education,” the Hawaii State Legislature wrote in an open letter to the DOE. With a wide array of student challenges resulting from distance learning — including lack of reliable internet connection for an estimated 25% of all students — the Legislature is asking the Board of Education’s Finance and Infrastructure Committee to convene an emergency meeting on July 2 to go over the DOE plan.

“In these difficult fiscal times the Legislature cannot issue funding to any Department without a clear, concise, and detailed plan on the use of requested resources,” the letter stated. “As of [June 24], the Legislature has only received an estimated budget using a Federal calculator to show what it could potentially cost for the reopening of schools. This constitutes neither prudent financial planning nor a clear plan for the use of our limited State funds.”

The letter criticized the DOE’s “dismal results” of distance learning, which received $42 million in federal CARES funds. “Additional funding without a comprehensive plan would be a disservice to our students.” Without a plan, the letter warns, “the Legislature will find it very difficult to justify allocating the State’s limited resources.”

The letter is signed by Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki; Senate Education Committee Chair Michelle Kidani and her House counterpart Representative Justin Woodson; and budget committee chairs Senator Donovan Dela Cruz and Representative Sylvia Luke.

The DOE has recently started negotiating with the Hawaii State Teachers Association about procedures for reopening in the Fall.

In response, DOE Superintendent Dr. Christina Kishimoto said:

“A month before schools are set to reopen, Hawaii’s legislators have allocated zero dollars from the state’s Coronavirus Relief Fund, from which we had sought $111 million to support public school students during this unprecedented crisis. By comparison, Colorado directed $547 million of its federal CRF funds to its K-12 public school system and Arizona allocated $270 million of its fund to public schools.

This setback is compounded by a $150 million reduction to our state operating funds imposed by the Legislature for this biennium — the equivalent of 23 instructional days.

We have repeatedly articulated to lawmakers our needs, initially focusing on emergency school closures, remote learning and telework, summer learning, and now reopening in the fall — all while keeping students and employees safe.”

On June 15, the DOE requested $111,135,956 from the Coronavirus Relief Fund “to ensure the equity of access to educational services delivered through on-line learning.” The request, sent to Governor Ige, included a breakdown of where that money would go. A DOE rep also stated that “Superintendent Kishimoto gave an extensive presentation to the Senate Special Committee on Covid-19 on June 19” where she “outlined a plan on reopening schools.” “She also hosted a webinar on June 3 for government officials to go over the Department’s COVID-19 response and summer plans” on top of “numerous meetings, hearings and one-on-one phone calls with lawmakers.”

Board of Education Chairperson Catherine Payne echoed similar sentiments in a response letter, citing Dr. Kishimoto’s Senate presentation last week:

“The Department [of Education] requested $57.8 million from the State Coronavirus Relief Fund to address device, connectivity, training, and support needs of our most vulnerable students. When I read Senate Bill 126, SD1, HD1, CD1, I was surprised and dismayed to see that the Department’s requests were not included.”

Payne was critical of the Legislature’s letter.

“Considering the Board’s concern for our state’s most vulnerable students, perhaps you can understand why your joint letter (dated June 24, 2020; received on June 26, 2020) further distresses me. My impression was that, through several meetings with Superintendent Kishimoto that she reported as positive, the Legislature received all the information it needed related to the Department’s resource needs. The criticisms in your letter have blindsided Superintendent Kishimoto and me.”