The Board of Education voted Thursday to give qualified, licensed teachers in the most critical shortage areas a big pay boost starting Jan. 7 to try to keep them on the job and attract more educators.
The rare decision to act midway through the fiscal year, even before securing funding from the Legislature, keeps the momentum going on a bold plan by state schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, Gov. David Ige and top education officials to tackle the long-standing teacher shortage.
It calls for “pay differentials” of $10,000 a year for special-education teachers, $8,000 for Hawaiian immersion teachers, and $3,000 to $8,000 for teachers in hard-to-staff areas, depending on severity of the shortage.
The proposal attracted passionate support from an overflow crowd of teachers who took time off to testify at the board’s special meeting, while hundreds more weighed in with written testimony.
“A special-education teacher pours her heart, body and mind into her job,” Julia Fernandez, who teaches at Mokulele Elementary at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam, told board members, shedding tears as she testified.
“Two teachers at my school are resigning, one this Friday and one at the end of January,” she said. “In the past, substitute teachers get burned out within a semester. They get in the car and they leave, and they don’t come back.”
In the 2018-19 school year, just 84% of special- education positions and 34% of Hawaiian immersion positions were filled by qualified and licensed teachers. Rural areas are plagued by shortages, too, some unable to even attract qualified candidates to interview.
The board voted 7-2 in favor of the proposal, deciding to act now in hopes of influencing teachers before the February transfer period, when educators can choose to change jobs.
“It certainly has been a record for my time on the board for the amount of people that have shared their manao (thoughts) with us, and we really appreciate it,” said Board Chairwoman Catherine Payne.
The governor announced the plan at a news conference Tuesday at Central Middle School, flanked by Kishimoto, Payne, President Corey Rosenlee of the Hawaii State Teachers Association and Jack Wong, CEO of Kamehameha Schools.
They framed the proposal as a question of equity and a step toward ensuring that all students get a high-quality education, no matter their circumstances or where they live.
“We have the HSTA, we have the governor, we have the superintendent and we’re all working together, and we don’t always do that,” said board member Maggie Cox. “So I’m ready to say yes. I’m ready for this.”
But two board members — Dwight Takeno and Nolan Kawano — weren’t ready to go along with the pay increases for special education and hard-to-staff areas, although they approved the Hawaiian immersion component, which is much less costly because it affects only about 100 teachers. Takeno said he fully supported the proposed pay differentials but wanted a clear picture of where the money would come from if legislators don’t appropriate it.
“I would like to know and see where that impact would be so that I understand that if we do not get the money, we will be fully aware of what programs we will be affecting,” Takeno said.
The teachers and students lining up to testify Thursday didn’t have any such qualms.
“These wonderful immersion teachers work so hard for us,” said 11-year-old Pu‘uwai Kaeo, who is in the sixth grade at Ke Kula Kaiapuni ‘o Pu‘ohala. “I would want to cry if I had to work as hard as them. I just can’t stand to watch them work so hard but get paid so little.”
Ige said he will seek the $14.7 million in funding to cover the pay differentials in this fiscal year and $30.4 million for the next fiscal year through his supplemental budget request to the Legislature. As of now, 1,691 special- education teachers, 2,109 teachers in hard-to-staff locations and 107 Hawaiian immersion teachers would qualify for them.
Pressed on whether teachers could count on the funding for this fiscal year, Kishimoto said that $216,000 needed this year for the Hawaiian immersion teachers is available through salary savings. And budget adjustments could be made to cover teachers in special education and hard-to-staff areas for the rest of this fiscal year, such as possibly tapping into the 5% hold that the state puts on department funding.
But she and other advocates said they trust that legislators will recognize the urgency of the situation and fund the proposal in full. The superintendent said the proposal aimed to include incentives for as many teachers as possible in the most severe shortage areas while recognizing fiscal constraints.
“I am looking to have a very doable proposal that is very hard to argue against,” Kishimoto said.
She said the department will gauge how well the pay incentives work by tracking the flow of teachers in and out of shortage areas.
“We have over 1,000 positions we cannot fill,” Rosenlee stressed. “We have to do something. We have to do something.”