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Public School Principals Grapple with Looming Budget Cuts

Cory Lum
Civil Beat

Along with much of the rest of the state government, the state Department of Education faces sharp budget cuts due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Three principals explained what these cuts will mean for their schools.


“My first priority is the health and safety and then trying to bring back all the positions that I have for an extra year,” Waiahole Elementary School Principal Alex Obra said.

“It's like there's a moving target that is constantly moving and changing. And you have to be compassionate and flexible with everybody,” King Intermediate School Principal Wendy Matsuzaki said.

“This COVID crisis is like a giant storm,” Kaneohe Elementary School Principal Derek Minakami said.

“At the beginning, all of us were really seasick from it, you're grasping a lot like preservers, and in some cases, now we're finally getting our sea legs as the waters get rough, again, it doesn't make us as sick as before, but with the budget crisis that adds another element.”

Like principals across the state, they are facing tough decisions on what to cut as their funding shrinks. 

Matsuzaki will prioritize cutting vacant positions, but that probably won’t be enough.

“It's never easy,” she said.

“You're talking about people's livelihoods, right? So how can you work and continue to teach or even if you're a classified employee, not a teacher, how do you continue to remain positive?”

Programs such as electives, social-emotional learning and innovative programs are most vulnerable to the cuts.

“These are the types of electives that will likely go first because they're not core foundational courses. And it's just really sad, because we've seen success for the kids,” Matsuzaki said.

“We've seen kids who were not as engaged. And in two years, we've seen them blossom and grow, but it's just sad that the impact of the budget cuts has to cut things that are nice to have, and are effective. But you got to do what you got to do.”. 

Waiahole elementary is one of smallest schools in the state with only 84 students. 

Obra doesn’t have much she can cut. Her school doesn’t even have a vice principal or a librarian. She also had to spend school funds on personal protective equipment and the now discontinued Acellus online school program-- all money she cannot use for next year.

“I'm probably not going to see that money back,” she said. 

“With that, I could have probably bought a position or rolled that money over to next year. So it's very challenging.”

Obra isn’t alone, Matsuzaki and Minakami also used school funds to secure electronic devices during the COVID-19 pandemic-- not the federal CARES act funds.

“This money was not sent directly to schools. So we can't speak to how it's spent,” Minakami said.

Minakami and Matsuzaki both ordered devices back in March using school funds-- and the CARES Act was not enacted until later that month.

However, because they put their orders in early, they were able to secure devices-- something the state continues to struggle with.

As of November-- the last time the numbers were updated-- the state had expended only about $77,000 of its $31 million CARES fund allotment, which is set to lapse at the end of the month.

Most of the money is being spent on distance learning equipment like chromebooks, laptops and hotspots.

As of earlier this month, the state had purchased 52 thousand digital devices-- but 20 thousand have not yet been delivered.

A DOE spokesperson explained there will be a 90 day period past December to pay for devices that were ordered with delivery dates originally before December 30th-- but are now delayed due to supply-chain issues.

In the meantime Minakami, like Matsuzaki and Obra, reaffirmed his commitment to continue to prioritize the wellbeing of his students.

“What we are keeping to is holding to our mission that still is our driver for what and how all decisions are made,” he said.

“Are we inspiring kids in recent learning? Are we helping them discover their passions? And if so, how can we make that work still? We will have to cut things that might force us to approach it differently. And cut people who have been, that's one of their sole missions, but we're gonna have to make adjustments.” 

The initial DOE budget cuts were sent to the governor, and will continue to change as it heads to the state legislature next month.


Ashley Mizuo
Born and raised on O’ahu, she’s a graduate of ‘Iolani School and has a BA in Journalism and Political Science from Loyola University Chicago and an MA in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.
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