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Hawaii teachers inundate Board of Education with testimony against pay cuts

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / 2019
                                This year started out with a bold move to combat Hawaii’s educator shortage by boosting pay for teachers in hard-to-staff geographic areas, special education and Hawaiian immersion. But COVID-19 has thrown the state’s once robust finances into turmoil. Pictured is Gov. David Ige at a conference in December with schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, left.

    CRAIG T. KOJIMA / 2019

    This year started out with a bold move to combat Hawaii’s educator shortage by boosting pay for teachers in hard-to-staff geographic areas, special education and Hawaiian immersion. But COVID-19 has thrown the state’s once robust finances into turmoil. Pictured is Gov. David Ige at a conference in December with schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, left.

More than 900 Hawaii public school teachers pleaded with the state Board of Education not to cut their pay to meet the looming budget shortfall.

The comments came as written testimony for the board to consider Thursday at its general business meeting.

Many teachers said a 20% pay cut — an idea floated by Gov. David Ige last month — would force them out of the profession and trigger an exodus of educators that would only wind up harming Hawaii’s children. The state is already short 1,000 qualified teachers.

“I fear if you cut teacher salaries even in the slightest, you’re looking at what could possibly be catastrophic repercussions,” said Joseph Wood, who teaches at Kailua High, as does his wife. “You’ll lose teachers by the hundreds because we simply can’t afford to live here.”

This year started out with a bold move to combat Hawaii’s long-standing educator shortage by boosting pay for teachers in hard-to-staff geographic areas, special education and Hawaiian immersion. But the economic collapse that accompanied COVID-19 has thrown the state’s once robust finances into turmoil.

The board’s Thursday agenda did not include any action item on teacher pay. A budget presentation, however, spelled out drastic shortfalls in expected revenues and a range of options to deal with that, with figures from the Department of Budget and Finance.

Among the items listed “for discussion purposes only” were tapping the state’s Rainy Day Fund, cutting the state’s proposed supplemental budget, deferring collective bargaining increases, suspending contributions to pension funds, and a 19.2% reduction in salary through directed leave without pay for most state workers.

That last item alarmed and galvanized teachers across the state to send in testimony, with some also offering their opinions by phone to the virtual meeting.

“I understand the state is in an economic crisis, however a huge cut of 20% is outrageous,” said Ryan Kanetani, a special- education teacher at Holomua Elementary in Ewa Beach. “Considering we are short on teachers, the cut will increase that gap as well as chase out current teachers from continuing the ‘thankless’ job of being an educator.”

Although the board did not take any action, several members voiced support for teachers and the work they have been doing during the pandemic.

“In spite of this crazy time, there’s been a lot of beauty, a lot of teachers going above and beyond, making sure that their students and families get what they need,” said board member Kaimana Barcarse. “When the idea of a teacher pay cut came up, it was like the wind was taken out of their sails. They are not only willing, they have been going above and beyond for a very, very long time.”

Deborah Bond-Upson also weighed in on behalf of the nonprofit Parents for Public Schools of Hawaii.

“Here we are in the pandemic, and we see there is pressure on everyone in the Department of Education and on the Board and on the families to find new ways to support and teach students,” she said. “And we believe the job of a teacher is only going to get more difficult and more challenging. More of their time will be spent learning new ways to teach, new systems to track, and we believe at this time, when our families and our students need so much from teachers, this would be an absolutely devastating time to cut teacher pay.”

When the proposal for a 20% pay cut for all state employees became public in mid-April, House Speaker Scott Saiki and Senate President Ron Kouchi quickly spoke out against it. Since then, government leaders have been considering other options, including possibly tapping federal aid to help balance the books, although there are restrictions on the use of that money.

“The state is looking at all other options first,” schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said at the meeting. “We applaud that, and we continue to be at the table pushing for alternatives to cuts in pay.”

The budget presentation listed areas for potential savings, including in “centralized salaries,” “centralized casual hires,” student transportation and restrictions on nonsalary funds.

Board member Kili Namau‘u urged her fellow members and the superintendent to “do whatever you can to make sure that we do not cut into the salaries of our teachers.”

“They took big hits years ago with the furloughs (put in place by then-Gov. Linda Lingle during the last economic downturn), and I know for many of them, they have not recovered from that,” she said. “And I don’t want to see some of our best and brightest and veteran teachers opt out … because they will, and we will never recover from this.”

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