Small public schools risk closure if minimum headcount is adopted

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Small public schools could be at risk of closing, if the state Board of Education adopts a proposed threshold for minimum enrollment. Drawing a line at a headcount that schools must stay above to stay open is a concept that’s been developing all this year within a D.O.E. committee. But many communities that could be affected may not yet know it’s a possibility.

The Department of Education’s Committee on Weights is supposed to balance per-pupil public school funding formulas statewide. It readjusts recommendations every couple of years. This time around they’re recommending the Board of Education establish a threshold enrollment for viable small schools.

The board agenda this coming Thurs., Sept. 19, includes votes on whether to take next steps. creating a policy about the board actions that are triggered when enrollment dips too low. Actions could include closure and consolidation.

Morning committee agenda link here

Afternoon general board agenda link here

Committee on Weights recommendation materials link here

“The process is underway and now’s the time for people to weigh in,” said Sen. Gil Riviere, whose district includes parts of Windward Oahu and the North Shore. “I think it’s important that we point out the equity needs of our rural schools and along with the neighbor islanders.”

Some neighbor island schools stand to gain significant per-pupil spending under the committee proposal. But it’s unclear if that’s only at the schools big enough to stay open in the first place.

The Department of Education told KHON2 in a statement: “These recommendations will help inform the creation of policies that will guide Board and Department decisions around enrollment levels and whether or not to provide additional resources or determine that a school is no longer sustainable.”

The D.O.E. added: “The Department’s mission is to provide equitable access to a quality public education, and we strive to deliver on this as we evaluate how we fund our schools. We must ensure that we are maximizing how we use our funds to better serve our haumana, which includes modifying practices that no longer benefit the communities we serve.”

But which schools, in what communities? No specific schools have been named for closure. But we’ve learned based on weights committee discussions and minutes that headcounts as high as 400 have been floated as a cutoff. More suggestions hover at 250 or below.

That alarms schools in Windward Oahu, an area that has the most sites under that size. Educators at rural windward schools are asking communities statewide to pay attention.

“All of a sudden it’s happening, so why couldn’t it happen to you, too?” said Hilary White, a Kaaawa Elementary School teacher. “It could happen to you, too.”

Kaaawa and Waiahole elementary schools have already started the Small School Coalition, with a first meeting next week Thurs., Sept. 26, at 5:30 p.m. at the Waiahole cafeteria. The goal is to help the community know what’s going on before a policy passes the point of no return.

“Write to your legislator, write to the B.O.E., write to whomever you can to let them know that we need to fund small schools,” White said. “Are we going to have mega schools like we’re having mega homes?”

Riviere says consolidation isn’t even feasible in rural Windward Oahu

“We went through this a few years ago with an earlier effort to consolidate schools and it was shown that Waiahole and Kaaawa are very important for their communities, that the nearest schools 10 miles in either direction can’t accommodate those students if they were to be closed,” Riviere said. “I would point out an example that Haleiwa Elementary was on the chopping block and they not only were saved but their population is double now what it was just a few years ago.”

KHON2 asked, how did Haleiwa do it?

“The community was really strong, the community came out and said this is a viable school, it’s an important school,” Riviere said, “and there’s been a great turnaround. It’s one of the great success stories.”

Kaaawa and Waiahole schools — each over a century old — have fended off consolidation before but aren’t letting their guard down.

“We’re never like, OK that’s over it’s done,” White said. “It’s a constant elephant in the room.”

Kaaawa’s headcount this year is 122. Waiahole has just 86.

KHON2 asked, to those in the doe or elsewhere who would say, but there comes a number at which a school just isn’t sustainable anymore, what would they say?

“I would suggest that they re-check those numbers,” White said. “For one if we you drive around our community there are houses coming up, there are families moving in.”

“I’ve talked to teachers at bigger schools and at the end of the year they’re going oh we have all this money that we need to spend right now, what are we going to do?” White said “And we feel like we’re looking under the car seat and in the couch cushions and everywhere  else. Our school is here. It’s in our community. Fund it.”

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