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Hawaii school board votes to keep pay hikes for special-education teachers, other shortage areas

The Board of Education voted Thursday to assure that teachers in special education and other shortage areas continue receiving up to $10,000 in extra pay annually despite the fiscal crisis.

Board members unanimously rejected a move by schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto to stop paying the $3,000-to-$10,000 “salary differentials” in the next school year for lack of funds.

The pay boosts took effect in January 2020 in an effort to recruit and retain teachers in hard-to-staff geographic areas, Hawaiian immersion and special education. The incentive pay has proved popular and and effective in attracting and keeping qualified staff in Hawaii’s public schools.

But the salary increases were approved before securing legislative appropriations, and the coronavirus pandemic blew a hole in the state budget. After legislators failed to fund the differentials, Kishimoto tried to phase them out in July, but the board overruled her.

On Feb. 9 she sent a memo to board members and school principals announcing that differentials would end because the state could not longer afford them due to the economic crisis. That set off an uproar among educators and angered board members. More than 400 pages of testimony poured in for the board’s special meeting Thursday, which was held virtually.

“Data shows these salary differentials have made huge impacts in addressing our shortage crisis,” said Tai Baird, a special-education teacher at Kahului Elementary School. “They were intended to draw teachers in critical areas where our most vulnerable population needs them.”

“Eliminating these differentials is not the answer,” she added. “Please find ways to fund them.”

The board held a special meeting Thursday on the issue and passed a motion requiring that Kishimoto rescind her memo and “refrain from taking action on any teacher pay differentials without prior board approval.”

Kishimoto said she supports better pay for teachers, but the shortfall in the public school budget left her no choice, given the deficit in current expenses and looming financial gap for the next school year.

“As superintendent I can’t expend funds that we do not have,” she told the board. “In fact, I cannot legally,” she added, citing the relevant section of state law.

But board members said the extra pay is crucial to maintain services for students, especially now when their learning has been disrupted by the pandemic.

“We are saying we need to concentrate our funds and our efforts on those that are most marginalized and in the most need,” said board member Kaimana Barcarse. “This initiative that was started before COVID has done so much good, and it’s on that trajectory to do more good. If we were to take that away now during this pandemic time, I think the effects of that would be very, very devastating.”

Instead, the board recommended using federal pandemic relief funds to cover those salary costs in the short term, and to make it a priority to continue them in the next school year.

“It does provide the financial bridge that we need to keep our teachers and hope for things to improve,” Vice Chairman Kenneth Uemura said.

Board Chairwoman Catherine Payne said doing so could ultimately make budgetary sense.

“What is also important from the testimony that I’ve heard is that the cost over the long run of having to continue to recruit and train teachers in these specific areas is high, and perhaps higher than the differentials that we are paying,” she said.

MORE THAN 4,000 teachers are receiving the differentials, with the annual cost pegged at $32.5 million. Certified special-education teachers receive a $10,000 pay boost per year, Hawaiian immersion teachers get $8,000 and teachers in hard-to-staff areas receive from $3,000 to $8,000, depending on the situation. Teachers may receive more than one differential at a time.

The initiative was announced in late 2019 by Gov. David Ige, board members and the superintendent. The differentials took effect Jan. 7, 2020.

Special-education teacher vacancies dropped by 43% between Oct. 1, 2019, and Oct. 1, 2020, falling to 69 vacancies from 122, according to department data. Vacancies at hard-to-staff schools were reduced by 36% over that year, dropping to 67 from 105.

But the department has had to scramble to cover the costs, with help from the governor.

At its general business meeting Thursday, the board voted to authorize the Department of Education to use the latest federal pandemic relief funds to close the financial gaps for salary differentials, as well as school food services, in the current school year, and to help cover those differentials in the coming school year. It directed the department to return to the board once the Legislature has finalized the department’s budget.

Board members also expressed hope that President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package, if passed, would send more money to Hawaii for education and other needs.

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