Incentive programs that help keep teachers in remote geographic areas might soon become yet another casualty of deep cuts in the education budget.

“They might get suspended, but we want to continue them if we can,” Kerry Tom, administrator for teacher recruitment with the Hawaii Department of Education, told Civil Beat. “I think it’s going to be dependent on the overall economy, because the Legislature has cut funds to the DOE.”

He said the department may not know until after the new school year begins whether the incentive program can continue for 2010-11.

The department about 10 years ago began distributing an annual $3,000 bonus to teachers working in areas that might otherwise be difficult to staff. The department’s staffing challenges are historically tied to certain geographic regions.

“Typically, for the Leeward District and on the Big Island, it has been difficult to find and keep teachers there,” Tom said.

So difficult, in fact, that the Hawaii Revised Statutes even legislate “additional benefits to certain [school personnel and] teachers.”

The department provides incentives for “highly qualified” (read: licensed) teachers by paying them an additional $3,000 per year to work in remote, rural areas. This retention bonus was first paid in 2000 as part of The Hawaii Qualified Teacher Equity Program, a concerted effort to provide quality teachers to all students despite geography and demography. Nearly 300 regular school teachers qualified for the bonus in the 2006-07 school year (the most recently reported year). An additional 64 special education instructors qualified for the incentive. The department paid out a total of $1,065,000 in retention incentives to qualified teachers in hard-to-fill areas that year. But Tom said the Qualified Teacher Equity Program may not be the same as the geographic incentive program.

“These are just different types of programs we have either explored or implemented,” Tom said of the document. “They’re not really linked together, necessarily.”

But he was unable to provide documentation outlining the geographic incentive program in particular, and said he wasn’t sure how many teachers received the bonus last year. (Difficulties gathering answers to questions about the incentive program are outlined in a related article.)

“It has to do with geographic location, so teachers in those areas would receive the bonus,” he said.

He could not name with certainty all the areas the department officially deems “hard-to-staff.”

Waianae, Nanakuli and Waimea have typically been designated among the hard-to-staff areas, said Naomi Takamori, personnel manager for the Leeward District. She does not know exactly how the department determines which areas qualify, but she agrees with the department that it is hard to hire and retain teachers in those locations.

“Not so much now though,” Takamori said. “The whole situation has turned around, because we don’t have as many staffing needs as we had in the past.”

That is in part because the bonuses have been successful, she said, but also thanks to other factors like proactive principals who promoted their schools.

Tom said he did not have data showing retention rates before and after the incentive was instituted.

The department’s 2008-09 Employment Report indicated that it had stopped issuing the bonus, implying budget cuts were the cause:

“The Department has in past years offered monetary relocation or retention incentives,” it stated on Page 31. “However, due to the current economic climate, these monetary incentives have been temporarily suspended.”

But Tom said he believes the geographic incentive has remained intact through the 2009-10 school year.

“All of these programs are important to us,” he said. “I think these helped, but I think the department is always trying to determine if that’s the best use of money, or if there is a different type of incentive we should be using. And we can’t continue a program if we don’t have funding available.”

But retaining teachers is not always about money, pointed out Christine Sorensen, dean of the College of Education at University of Hawaii at Manoa, in an earlier conversation with Civil Beat. Work conditions play a big role in keeping educators happy and fulfilled.

“Administration, the amount of support you get from your supervisor, whether you have the materials you need to do the job, whether you feel supported so you can learn and grow, whether you feel like there’s an opportunity for you to grow — all of those impact your work satisfaction,” Sorensen said.

If the department does end up cutting its geographic incentive program, teachers may still receive local incentive packages from the communities where they work — housing, mileage, discounts at local businesses, etc — if any are still offered.

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