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Hawaii Board of Education members oppose furloughing teachers, school staff

Board of Education members are pushing back against Gov. David Ige’s plan to furlough public school employees, saying the move would be too damaging and federal funds might bridge the budget gap.

Teachers and other stakeholders implored the board Thursday to do something to reverse the furlough proposal, submitting more than 400 pages of impassioned testimony at its virtual meeting.

They said furloughs on top of other school budget cuts would push teachers and other staff over the edge financially and leave students — who have already missed so much face-to-face learning during the pandemic — in the lurch.

The furlough plan was on the BOE agenda only for discussion purposes, not as an action item, because the board does not have authority over furloughs, according to board member Bruce Voss, an attorney. But members wanted to raise their concerns.

“In fairness to the governor, nobody knew what Congress was going to do,” Voss said. “But circumstances have now changed. By all accounts it appears very, very likely that Congress will include large amounts of money for education spending in the upcoming stimulus bills.

“Given that, we need to defuse the situation and reduce this anxiety among our teachers, staff and families and respectfully but strongly urge the governor to immediately rescind his furlough directive to the Department of Education,” he said.

Ige has said his emergency powers during the coronavirus pandemic give him the authority to impose furloughs. But the public worker unions argue their contracts do not include furloughs and must be negotiated.

The proposed furlough plan for the Department of Education calls for 12- month employees, which include principals and office staff, to be furloughed 10 days between Jan. 1 and June 30. Teachers, counselors, school librarians and other 10-month employees would be furloughed six days during that time.

“The public does need to know that the Board of Education does not sanction furloughs, does not believe in them,” board member Kili Namau‘u said.

Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto has said any furloughs beyond the first two days, Jan. 4 and Feb. 12, are contingent on the governor extending the state of emergency and affirming they are needed.

Apart from the furloughs, the board previously approved budget cuts of roughly 10% for the 2021-23 operating budget on top of the 6% reduction on this year’s DOE budget, as directed by the governor. But board members said they hoped some of the money could be restored during the legislative session.

John Fitzpatrick, a science teacher at Maui Waena Intermediate School, offered various ideas to raise funds to balance the budget.

“During this economic downturn we must band together and ask the Legislature to look for alternatives like taxing REITs (real estate investment trusts), asking those making more than $200,000 to pay 10% more in taxes, close loopholes that allow corporations to avoid state and local taxes, increase sales tax on out-of-state online shopping, (and) a daily hotel education fee,” he testified.

Sarah Ferguson, who teaches at Waialae Elementary Public Charter School, said teachers have been devoted essential workers, learning new technology and modifying how they teach.

“To furlough them is an absolute slap in the face to all their hard work and dedication over the past 10 months,” she said. “I am working 60 hours a week and getting paid for 40 hours.

“As a community member, I urge you to do what’s best for our keiki. They have already missed out on so much face-to-face instruction and are struggling both emotionally and academically. Taking away their instructional time would be sending the message that their education is not important.”

The department delineated Thursday how the 10% cut would play out at the state level, describing staff positions and specific impacts. That document can be found online at 808ne.ws/3planZ.

Specifics on how cuts would affect schools and their complex areas are expected next month after principals complete their academic and financial plans.

“The community needs to say whether they want to have an excellent public education system and, if they want to have it, are they willing to pay for it,” board Chairwoman Catherine Payne said.

FURLOUGH PROPOSAL

The governor’s plan calls for 12-month employees, which include principals and office staff, to take 10 furlough days between Jan. 1 and June 30. Teachers, counselors, school librarians and other 10-month employees would be furloughed six days during that time.

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