A new effort to recruit and keep teachers in hard-to-staff areas with annual pay boosts of up to $10,000 a year survived the chopping block Thursday despite a lack of funding for the next school year.
The Board of Education opted not to suspend the “pay differentials,” which took effect Jan. 7 and showed promise in combating the teacher shortage in specific areas. The extra compensation applied to licensed classroom teachers in special education, Hawaiian language immersion and geographically hard-to-staff areas, and ranged from $3,000 to $10,000 a year.
Teachers from across the state pleaded with the board Thursday to maintain the higher pay rates, although the Legislature did not fund them. Cutting the extra compensation would amount to a “bait and switch” tactic, teachers argued, because they had chosen to work in special education and other hard-to-staff areas based on the higher pay scale and Hawaii’s cost of living.
“Going back on this promise would be a significant betrayal to our teachers and our students,” Kekoa Michael Bay, who teaches science and special education at Pearl City High, testified. “Many teachers made some significant decisions based on this promise of differentials.”
Earlier this year the Legislature rejected the department’s request for funds to cover the pay hikes through a supplemental budget request for fiscal year 2020-21. A separate bill seeking money for the differentials cleared several committees but ultimately did not pass.
Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto recommended that the board temporarily suspend the differentials given the lack of funds and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on state finances. She said she would push to restore them the following year.
The board ultimately refused to take any action on the issue, despite a warning from board member Bruce Voss that not acting would be financially irresponsible since no money was appropriated by lawmakers.
“The Legislature is responsible for this decision,” he said. “Based on what we were given by the Legislature, we don’t have a real choice here. We cannot spend what we don’t have.”
But board members said the Department of Education would somehow have to come up with the money.
“It was a commitment that we made, and we have staff that have made life choices, important life choices, based on this commitment,” said board member Kaimana Barcarse, although he acknowledged that “it will be difficult to find the money.”
Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, urged the board to put off any decision on the differentials in hopes that Congress would allocate more federal funds to education for the coming school year.
“This program worked, and it worked better than our dreams ever imagined,” Rosenlee said. “In the first year alone it retained and recruited 249 teachers.”
Preparation programs for special-education teachers also saw big jumps in enrollment, he said. The University of Hawaii’s post-baccalaureate program in special education saw its numbers rise to 107 from 67 students, while Leeward Community College’s special-education license program jumped to 93 from 37 students, he said.
A separate, $3,000 differential for licensed teachers in hard-to-staff areas that was negotiated with the Hawaii State Teachers Association took effect in 2017. That extra pay applies in the Hana, Keaau, Lanai, Molokai, Kau, Nanakuli, Pahoa and Waianae complex areas.