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Fears grow of furlough-driven teacher exodus

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Brian and April Citro are high school teachers who are now updating their resumes for teaching in Wyoming and Montana. The couple is considering moving to the mainland in anticipation of the additional financial stress incurred from the upcoming furloughs. They are pictured with their daughters — Gaia, 5, and Rell, 2 — in Kailua.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Brian and April Citro are high school teachers who are now updating their resumes for teaching in Wyoming and Montana. The couple is considering moving to the mainland in anticipation of the additional financial stress incurred from the upcoming furloughs. They are pictured with their daughters — Gaia, 5, and Rell, 2 — in Kailua.

Public school teachers say they still have not recovered from the “Furlough Fridays” education cuts of 2009 and 2010 — and now worry a new round of furloughs will force some teachers to leave the islands.

Hawaii still has not recouped the 1,000 teachers who were lost from the 17 days of Friday furloughs under the administration of former Gov. Linda Lingle, according to Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association. And teachers still have not gotten their overdue “step” pay increases that were frozen and never restored — meaning that teachers with 15 years of experience and those with 25 years essentially make the same salaries, he said.

“Every 10 years, this is what we choose to do to education,” Rosenlee said. “There was a huge exodus of teachers that left Hawaii, and that led to the teacher shortage crises that we’re currently facing. … We’ve been there, we’ve done that. We know how bad it was. Why do we have to do this again?”

The “Furlough Fridays” also affected working parents who had to scramble to find day care for their children who were suddenly home from school.

Gov. David Ige last week announced that about 10,160 state employees will have to go on furlough twice a month, starting Jan. 1, because of projected budget shortfalls of $1.4 billion over each of the next four years triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The upcoming furloughs include several exemptions for job categories including first responders, Hawaii firefighters and others who work in “24/7” operations such as public hospitals, jails and correctional facilities.

The furloughs also will not apply to workers funded with non-general fund sources. They include about 4,600 state employees who are first responders, medical and public safety personnel and employees at the departments of Commerce and Consumer Affairs and Transportation.

Ige said he and his Cabinet members will take pay cuts of 9.23% that are equivalent to the two furlough days per month.

Ige did not immediately provide numbers for additional state Department of Education and University of Hawaii employees who face furloughs.

Following Ige’s announcement, state schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto sent a video message to the DOE’s 21,900 employees saying there is no furlough schedule for them yet.

But the plan for next semester is likely to be “less than the 9.23% — or two days a month — that the Executive Branch is implementing,” she said.

Kishimoto suggested that so-called “10-month employees” — including teachers, counselors and school librarians — would have to be furloughed only one day a month though June 30 under the DOE plan.

“The dates the HIDOE has planned includes six days between January 1 and June 30th for 10-month employees and 10 days for 12-month employees,” she said. “Our planned furlough days take into account that we lost nine instructional days at the beginning of this school year (due to COVID-19). We wanted to minimize any further loss of instructional days for students. … I want to emphasize that this situation is not a reflection of all the hard work that you have and continue to deliver on.”

Following the Friday furloughs of a decade ago, a law was passed mandating a minimum of 180 days of public school instruction.

Leaders for the teachers union, the HSTA, Hawaii Government Employees Association and United Public Workers union, say public school employees affected by the furloughs include teachers, librarians, educational assistants, counselors, registrars, cafeteria workers, social workers, custodians and groundskeepers.

Married teachers Brian Citro, 43, and April Babcock, 41, have begun updating their resumes to apply for teaching jobs in Wyoming and Montana, where they met as students at Montana State University in Bozeman.

Citro teaches biology at Campbell High School, and Babcock teaches social studies at Kalaheo High School.

They moved to Oahu in 2013, got married in 2015 and had two daughters — 5-year-old Gaia, who loves the ocean and beach, and 2-year-old Rell.

The couple rent a two-bedroom, two-bathroom house in Kailua for $2,000 a month.

He drives a 2002 Honda CRV with about 140,000 miles on the odometer, and she drives a 2007 Subaru Forester.

After paying the bills, “that’s it,” Citro said. “I’m pretty much empty until my next paycheck. It’s difficult. It’s definitely a struggle.”

All it takes is one car repair bill and any frills are off the table, such as a family weekend on the North Shore.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, “they were talking about increasing our salaries, bonuses for hard-to-fill positions,” Citro said. “They were talking about back pay. Teachers never got their step increase. So they were talking about getting that money back to teachers. Things were looking up, all of a sudden.”

So he and Babcock started talking to Realtors and dreaming of buying a house.

Now — with the possibility of furlough-day pay cuts for each of them — “we’ve put everything on hold,” Citro said.

“We do not want to leave Hawaii,” he said. “We want to be here. We want to raise our daughters here. But I’m 43 years old and I live paycheck to paycheck.”

As teachers, Citro and Babcock would earn less in Montana and Wyoming. But the lower cost of living would mean they could buy a house on “a nice piece of land” with a yard big enough for the girls and a dog — “the American dream,” as Citro calls it.

Citro and Babcock represent DOE employees across the islands unsure of what happens next — and how they’ll be able to cope financially, Rosenlee said.

With COVID-19, “teachers are working harder than ever right now,” Rosenlee said. “Teachers are stretched beyond the breaking point.”

The most common comment he’s receiving following Ige’s furlough announcement is, “I can’t afford to live in Hawaii as it is right now. And if they cut my salary, I’ll have to leave.”

In a statement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Gov. David Ige said Saturday, “As the pandemic continues to ravage the state’s finances, I have implemented a hiring freeze and cut programs by hundreds of millions of dollars to address the projected $1.4 billion revenue shortfall. General excise tax collections are down 24% and transient accommodations tax collections are down 92% in the current fiscal year. At this time, furloughs are the best remaining option for delivering a balanced budget to the Legislature … as I am required to do. Our plan is flexible and will be adjusted should additional federal aid be provided. With regard to further borrowing, I view it as fiscally irresponsible because debt of such magnitude will severely impact the state’s credit quality and liquidity. I have chosen a more prudent approach, mindful of the growing debt the state will be burdened with in the future.”

In response to unions’ statements that Ige has alternatives to furloughs, including borrowing, Ige said, “For the first time in the state’s history, we are borrowing funds to pay current expenses. We have already borrowed $750 million in 2020. The $1.4 billion revenue shortfall is projected to continue for the next four years. Additional borrowing for current expenses significantly increases future general fund appropriations required for debt service and future general fund appropriations required for debt service and degrades our credit rating, which in turn raises the cost of borrowing and increases the amount the state, and therefore the taxpayers, will have to pay back for many years to come.”

In his statement, Ige reiterated that the furloughs are intended to prevent the potential for layoffs of as many as 4,000 state employees “to generate the savings equal to 2 furlough days per month as proposed. Layoffs of this magnitude will be more devastating to our economy and our state employees than furloughs.”

Rosenlee is on leave from teaching at Campbell High School, and his wife, Lisa, is a professor at UH-West Oahu, facing her own furlough.

During the era of “Furlough Fridays,” the couple brought their young daughter to Lingle’s office at the state Capitol to stage protest sit-ins along with other parents.

Their daughter, Vivian, is now a senior at Campbell High School facing fewer days of instruction.

Rosenlee said he cannot believe that Ige is now planning a new round of furloughs for teachers and other DOE employees, because “everybody agrees they were a terrible mistake.”

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