The status of future educational trips for Hawaii’s public school students remains murky following a marathon meeting of the State Ethics Commission on Wednesday.
More than half of the nearly four-hour meeting was devoted to attempts to solve a messy clash between several provisions of the ethics code that applies to state employees, including teachers, and the Department of Education’s goal of encouraging educational trips to complement, extend, and broaden classroom experiences.
It was the latest round in a shoving match between the Ethics Commission, its staff, and the DOE in which students and their parents are the innocent bystanders.
At issue are clear differences of opinion regarding how the state’s ethics code should be applied to educational trips traditionally planned, organized, promoted and led by classroom teachers with general oversight and approval by the DOE.
In February, the commission announced that it considers free trips given to teachers by private travel companies for arranging and participating in educational trips for students “impermissible gifts” that violate the ethics laws.
At that time, Les Kondo, the commission’s executive director, said it would not attempt to block pending trips, citing the complexity and cost of cancellations.
However, trips planned but not yet taken have remained in an ethical gray area.
The main concern has been over trips in which teachers control the destination and itinerary, selection of travel company, promotion and recruitment of participants, and selection of chaperones, who also qualify for free travel.
It’s the central role of teachers in organizing all aspects of the trips, and then personally benefiting from those decisions in the form of free travel and, in some cases, additional benefits such as meals, stipends, and “points” good for future private travel, which initially drew the attention of the commission.
Despite several further discussions during subsequent commission meetings, little progress has been made in addressing just how to revise procedures for the trips, which all sides acknowledge can provide once-in-a-lifetime experiences for island students.
There are still more questions than answers about whether, and under what conditions, trips now in the planning stages will be allowed to proceed.
Commission staff members started Wednesday’s discussion with its recommendations for those trips already planned but not yet taken.
In those cases, the staff recommended that teachers be prohibited from accepting “gifts” of free trips from the travel companies involved.
Commission staff said the trips could go forward, but only if teachers paid their own way, the costs were paid by the DOE, or other teachers who had not been involved in the planning went in place of the originating teachers.
None of those “solutions” are viable, Superintendent of Education Kathryn Matayoshi told commissions during the public comment period.
Without free travel for teachers, you likely won’t have a trip, Matayoshi said.
Most teachers will not take part if they have to pay their own way to work long hours managing the students under their care while away from home, she said. The department has no funds to pay for teacher travel, as it is working with a budget little changed from 2008. And having substitute teachers try to step in at the last minute undermines the basic educational purposes of the trips, which are most often linked to the organizing teacher’s classroom objectives.
Commission staff nixed several suggestions for private fundraising to pay for trips of teachers instead of taking money directly from the travel companies, saying each posed its own ethical problems.
Matayoshi said educational trips, including all travel plans, must be approved by school principals and their respective complex area superintendents. However, commission staff members questioned the quality of that oversight by presenting the example of a trip to Florida that seemed to be little more than a summer vacation tour through Disney World, Universal Studios and other tourist attractions, which had been approved despite its apparently lack of educational benefits.
Without free travel for teachers, you likely won’t have a trip, said state Superintendent of Education Kathryn Matayoshi
The commission staff held firm in its position.
“A teacher who financially benefits from selecting a travel company has a conflict of interest,” Kondo said.
Kondo also said the commission is still collecting details about how trips are organized, and pointed out that some trips would already pass ethical muster. For example, trips organized by nonprofit sponsors to send students to educational competitions would likely not raise the same kinds of ethics issues.
Commissioner Ruth Tschumy, a retired educator, said the goal is to bring travel policies and practices into line with the ethics code.
But, she pleaded, “we shouldn’t be making teachers look like the bad guys for following 30 years or more of educational practice.”
“Nobody has been trying to get away with something, they’ve been trying to do what is best for the children,” Tschumy said.
Commissioner Susan DeGuzman, in her first meeting as chair, tried to toss the problem back the DOE.
“The ball is in your court,” she told Matayoshi. “We’ve given you so much information. Can you now come up with a plan?”
Matayoshi, in turn, said the department has been discussing ways to structure future travel in order to comply with the law, but chided the commission for doing little to assist. And when Commissioner David O’Neal asked whether commission staff had been meeting with education officials over recent months to craft a solution, the answer was “no.”
That led Tschumy to comment: “We need some problem solving here, and I don’t know why so many months have gone by without it.”
Matayoshi said that by closing off different options, the commission was leaving the department “boxed in,” and caught in a “Catch-22,” referring to a situation of being trapped by contradictory rules.
Kondo said the commission is just trying to protect teachers from finding themselves in the position of violating the ethics code, but after the two hours of confusing discussion, the statement failed to provide much solace to students, families and teachers.
Matayoshi asked that the commission agree to allow all trips that had been in the planning stage prior to May 13, 2015, and to be completed by the end of the 2015-2016 academic year, to proceed under the department’s prior procedures.
This was put into the form of a motion by Tschumy, and seconded by O’Neal, but it failed.
A similar motion by O’Neal, limited to those trips to be completed during this calendar year, also failed.
The commission finally voted that no action would be taken against teachers regarding acceptance of free travel for those trips which have already been completed. The commission also voted to require teachers or other employees who have received gifts of travel since June 1, 2014, to file gift disclosure statements as required by the ethics law.
The meeting was adjourned without clarifying the status of future trips, some of which are being planned as far as two years in advance.
Afterward, Matayoshi said it appears those will each have to be considered and reviewed individually by the commission.
Given the realities of the commission’s limited staff time and resources, it’s hard to imagine how such a piecemeal approach can possibly work.
The matter is sure to remain on the commission’s plate until it can be satisfactorily resolved.
The Ethics Commission began the meeting by welcoming a new member and electing a new chair.
Reynaldo Graulty attended his first meeting after being appointed to a four-year term by Gov. David Ige. Graulty has previously served in both the state House and Senate, was the state insurance commissioner, and served 10 years as a Circuit Court judge before retiring in 2009. Graulty replaces Commissioner Ed Broglio, whose term expired at the end of June.
Commissioners then elected DeGuzman as the new chair, replacing Broglio.