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Teacher bonuses, classroom ACs may not be best use of federal coronavirus relief funds for Hawaii, officials say

At the tail end of the 2021 legislative session, with no public input, lawmakers decided to use nearly $30 million in coronavirus relief money to give every full- and part-time public school teacher a $2,200 bonus.

They also told the Board of Education how to spend hundreds of millions more of pandemic relief dollars, including installing air conditioners in classrooms at a time when health officials recommend more fresh air and ventilation.

Those spending mandates, however, may run afoul of state and federal laws, some education officials say. And the Hawaii Government Employees Association called it “unconscionable” and divisive for the Legislature to single out teachers for “a generous cash bonus” while making significant budget cuts elsewhere.

“The $2,200 bonus for teachers disregards the hard work and sacrifices of all other public employees who continue to provide educational and other public services and who were or are at risk of contracting COVID-19 while working on the front lines,” the union said in a statement Thursday.

Under state law, the Board of Education rather than the Legislature is supposed to administer, use and expend federal funds for public education. The latest infusion of federal coronavirus relief money also explicitly requires the Department of Education to consult with numerous stakeholder groups and the public in developing a plan to spend it.

But education officials said neither they nor the public had any say when legislators amended House Bill 613 late in the session to insert their spending plan for the federal monies, rather than its original language, which focused on preventing furloughs and layoffs of unionized school staff.

BOE Chairwoman Catherine Payne said the Legislature did include some board priorities, such as addressing learning loss with summer programs, but other items such as air conditioners are far afield. And in any case, it is the board’s responsibility to steward federal funds.

“Not a single legislator will ever be held accountable for how the money is spent,” Payne said. “The governor, the board and the Department of Education will be. We are the ones that will have to be really, really careful and thorough and not politically motivated.”

Payne said she was speaking personally, not on behalf of the board since it has not yet met to discuss the matter.

“I have some concerns about whether these funds might be put in jeopardy,” she added. “The requirements are that they are spent by the Department of Education in very specific ways that they have identified.”

Token of appreciation

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund money is supposed to go toward helping schools safely return to and maximize in-person instruction, and to address the academic, social, emotional and mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the nation’s students.

“Plans must be tailored to the specific needs faced by students and schools,” federal guidance says.

House Education Chairman Justin Woodson (D, Kahului-Wailuku-Puunene) said he considers the teacher bonuses well deserved and “absolutely appropriate” as a way to stabilize and retain the education workforce. The federal guidance does allow using funds “to stabilize the workforce and avoid layoffs.” HB 613 calls the bonuses “one-time stabilization payments.”

“When you have conversations with educators, they are burnt out, they are thinking about leaving the profession,” Woodson said. “This is just a small token of appreciation for you to continue doing the great work that you did in our classrooms to support all of our children.”

The Hawaii State Teachers Association issued a statement Friday thanking legislators for their unanimous support of the bill that includes the $2,200 payments, saying it would help combat the chronic teacher shortage.

As for the air conditioning, Woodson said cooling classrooms is vital for student learning, and the air conditioners would be fitted with HEPA filters. Legislators set aside $110 million for safely reopening schools in the next fiscal year with a priority put on air conditioning.

“That’s enough money to AC all of the remaining classrooms, and that’s what we expect the department to do,” Woodson said.

Asked about the need for ventilation to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission, Woodson said teachers could still open up their windows and doors if they choose.

“However, if it is going to be 110 degrees in a class, that is not acceptable,” he added.

Hawaii’s Department of Education has reached out to the U.S. Department of Education for feedback on the many spending provisos in HB 613, as it faces a June 7 deadline for submitting its own plan to the federal government that incorporates feedback from more than 20 stakeholders groups and the public.

“We are in consultation with the feds and we are waiting further guidance on the allowability of this plan,” said Brian Hallett, assistant superintendent and chief financial officer for the DOE. “On its face value, there appears to be inconsistencies with state and federal guidelines.”

Senate Education Chairwoman Michelle Kidani (D, Mililani-Waikele-Kunia) said legislators specified how to spend the money in order to ensure Hawaii met federal requirements for keeping public school spending on par with recent years. She said they also wanted to push money down for use at the schools as opposed to the state level.

“The board said early on that they wanted it as much as possible at the school level also,” Kidani said Wednesday. “I don’t think that we did anything in our funding that the board would disagree with, and as of right now we have not heard anything from them.”

Legislators’ role questioned

About $100 million was allocated to the 15 complex areas for school-level programming such as social-emotional needs; science, technology, engineering and math; career and technical education; and Hawaiian culture. Legislators also directed that $35.7 million be added to the weighted student formula that goes directly to schools to compensate for different student needs and demographics, Kidani noted.

“The principals are very happy that we increased their weighted student formula, so they’re not going to have to scrape the barrel to fund what they need, to make sure they have the staff that they need,” she said.

Altogether, HB 613 appropriates more than $500 million from the last two rounds of coronavirus relief funds for education. Almost all the spending is front-loaded into the first year of the biennium budget. The bill requires the department to first get approval from the Legislature if it wants to reallocate any money to meet federal requirements.

The legislative directives, including other bills such as one dictating qualifications for the next DOE superintendent, have raised concern among some observers who provide significant support to the public schools.

Superintendent Christina Kishimoto will be stepping down July 30 after four years on the job, with the BOE to select her successor.

“The Legislature has a legitimate, important, constitutionally mandated role in public K-12 education in Hawaii,” said Terrence George, president and CEO of the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation. “But the following two actions are not part of that legitimate role: passing middle-of-the-night laws to usurp the Board of Education’s sole authority to set up qualifications in the superintendent search process or to control how federal funds are to be spent to reduce the pandemic’s effect on learning.

“I’m troubled by these developments,” George added. “In the midst of the worst year for learning for our students in at least a decade, we need to stop undercutting each other and start working together to help our education system chart a safe path to learning recovery.”

Gov. David Ige has until June 21 to indicate which bills he may veto, and the deadline to take action on bills is July 6. If he were to veto HB 613, decisions on use of the coronavirus relief funds would likely revert to the Board of Education.

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