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Hawaii teachers union challenges proposed staff cuts, use of federal funds for tutoring services

The Hawaii State Teachers Association said today that budget cuts and layoffs proposed by the governor and school superintendent are actually prohibited by federal rules that come with the use of stimulus funds.

Last week, the state Department of Education released the detailed impacts to public schools for next year due to budget cuts as directed by Gov. David Ige. The cuts would result in the loss of an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 jobs at the department, including hundreds of teachers, librarians and counselors, along with educational assistants and clerks.

At the same time, the department expects to get help from the $900 billion stimulus relief package passed by Congress in December, which allots Hawaii with about $183.6 million from the Education Stabilization Fund.

The department’s reorganization plan in response to the cuts and proposed use of the $183.6 million next year are on the Board of Education’s agenda on Thursday.

HSTA says the cuts violate two provisions put in place to ensure the federal funds are used for their intended purpose.

The first — Sec. 315 — says a state receiving federal funds must “to the greatest extent practicable,” continue to pay its employees and contractors during the period of any disruptions or closures related to coronavirus. The second — Sec. 317 — says a state receiving funds must maintain support for elementary and secondary education “at least at the proportional levels” averaged over the three fiscal years prior to COVID-19.

“Currently, the state is not living up to these stimulus provisions,” said HSTA president Corey Rosenlee. “Next school year, the Hawaii Department of Education will take the largest financial hit of any state department with nearly a $400 million loss.”

While the DOE took a much larger hit than any other department in the state, he said these provisions for the federal funding were intended to keep teachers in classrooms and maintain their pay, not result in layoffs or furloughs.

In addition, HSTA opposes the DOE’s proposed use $53 million to provide private tutors and summer school for students that have been academically challenged during the pandemic.

According to the proposal, the personalized tutoring services would be offered to 5th- to 8th- graders who are two or more years behind in English Language Arts and math to help them transition to high school.

“Trying to fund $53 million of private tutors while at the same time firing 1,000 teachers makes absolutely no sense,” said Rosenlee. “Of course, there’s been learning loss, but if we lose 1,000 teachers, we know from past experience it’s really hard to create a pool of teachers. If we lose teachers, it will be years or decades before we catch up.”

Tutoring, whether private or public, he said, is just “a luxury we cannot afford.” Keeping qualified teachers, however, is important to getting students back to the levels where they need to be once face-to-face learning resumes.

The HSTA is highlighting these issues now, according to Rosenlee, so Gov. Ige can make the needed changes to his budget, and so the department of education can modify its use of the stimulus funds to comply with the provisions.

Any violations of the terms could be subject to penalties or litigation, according to HSTA’s attorney and former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa.

The state Department of Education said it does not comment on potential legal action.

However, DOE said it is committed to working closely with all stakeholders to ensure schools have necessary resources to meet their unique needs, and will work with the State Legislature “to find long-term and innovative solutions” to the pandemic’s detrimental effects on Hawaii’s public school systems.

The state DOE also said “one-to-one tutoring” is one of its most effective strategies in helping to mitigate learning loss caused by the closure of schools due to the pandemic.

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