WAILUKU, Maui — How steep is Hawaii’s need for classroom teachers? Enough for one Maui high school to begin turning to high school graduates, potentially not much older than the students themselves, as substitute teachers.

Lahainaluna High School, a west Maui school whose enrollment surpasses 1,000, recently obtained a DOE waiver that “allows anyone with a high school diploma to apply to become a substitute teacher at our school.”

The standard prerequisite for a substitute position, according to the DOE website, is a bachelor’s degree, although there is a separate designation for high school diploma holders.

“We are all aware of the dire crisis our school and many schools face in regards to the lack of teachers and substitute teachers,” states a Sept. 25 email from a Lahainaluna High vice principal to staff. “Applicants to be a Lahainaluna HS substitute only need a high school diploma.”

Senior Associate Amanda Brown asks questions during DOE Teacher Salary session held at McKinley Adult School.
APA Consulting Senior Associate Amanda Brown, center, facilitates a DOE teacher salary discussion held at McKinley Community Schools for Adults in Honolulu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Extreme actions like this one necessitated by the state’s chronic teacher shortage sent droves of Hawaii teachers to a series of Department of Education listening sessions last week on the subject of teacher pay, and how its inadequacy is leading to an alarming attrition in the profession.

Schools wouldn’t be in this position, said Mike Landes, a civics teacher at Lahainaluna High who attended a session on Maui, if the state was paying its regular teachers enough to allow them to stay in Hawaii.

“That’s insane, that’s a slap in the face,” Landes said of hiring high school grads as subs.

Facilitated by Denver-based education consultants, the eight DOE listening sessions — held after school hours on Oahu, Maui and Big Island — featured testimonial after testimonial of the struggle to live in the country’s most expensive state on a teacher’s salary.

The sessions are intended to give the DOE a candid look at the burden teachers face under the existing pay scale. An online survey is also open until Sunday for those who couldn’t attend a session in person.

But some teachers fear this effort — funded through a $130,000 DOE contract for a study of how Hawaii’s teacher compensation system compares to some other parts of the U.S. — could ultimately ring hollow if it doesn’t lead to fundamental changes in the pay structure.

“I’ve been to way too many sessions where it’s all talk, talk, talk, talk and nothing afterwards,” said Landes. He urged the DOE to take action, “and it’s got to be legit, otherwise, this is just a complete waste of our time.”

While some teachers said they found these DOE listening sessions useful, comforting even, veterans of the profession are seeing their patience wear thin when it comes to actually seeing more livable wages for the 13,700-strong public teacher force.

“There’s a disconnect here with the political system, a complete, utter discontent,” said Justin Hughey, a King Kamehameha III Elementary School teacher on Maui. “I just don’t see this ever being solved, with the history, with the lack of empathy from legislators, from governors, with just the pure utter disconnect in our communities.”

Starting pay is around $49,000 for a licensed first-year teacher and could reach around $93,000 for someone who has accrued enough professional development credits and higher learning credentials.

While Hawaii’s average teacher pay of $60,000 is higher than the national average, it is considered the lowest in the country when adjusted for cost of living. Rent, gas and groceries on the islands are far higher than average prices elsewhere around the country.

Queen Kaahumanu teacher Mary Bonnetty asks a question during salary session held at McKinley Adult School.
Queen Kaahumanu Elementary special education teacher Mary Bonnetty shares her perspective during a salary session held at McKinley Community School for Adults. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hawaii’s teacher pay scale differs from other systems in that it’s built on a “salary grid” of pre-negotiated step increases through a collective bargaining agreement between the Hawaii State Teachers Association, the DOE, Board of Education and the state executive office.

The current agreement covers 2017 to 2021, with bargaining for the next contract set to begin next July.

There is no automatic pay increase in Hawaii for years of service — a shortcoming Hawaii State Teachers Association president Corey Rosenlee refers to as “our Achilles heel.”

Certified teachers from elsewhere are credited only with up to six years of experience for placement on the salary scale. Teachers who have taught for decades in Hawaii might be paid less than or on par with a teacher who has far less years of experience, as in the case of Larry Wayman.

The Farrington High teacher, who started out at a $45,000 annual salary 16 years ago, only just broke the $50,000 mark this year, he said at a listening session in Honolulu at McKinley Community School for Adults.

Teachers lamented having to work second or third jobs, giving up their vehicle to save on car costs, using vacation days for parental leave (the DOE offers none) or leaving the classroom altogether to jump to administration jobs for higher pay.

They also talked about how they could be making a great deal more by now if they continued teaching in their former states of residence.

The comments also touched on more than just pay but working conditions, from the lack of administrator support in some schools to intake officials in the DOE needing to “find some aloha” when it comes to welcoming new professionals into the fold.

‘Having Good Conversations’

Hawaii’s teachers are not alone in expressing frustration over pay and working conditions.

The national “Red for Ed” movement that took root over the last couple of years saw thousands of teachers around the country strike for higher pay and improved health insurance plans, as well as reduced classroom size and more social workers and counselors.

The last time Hawaii’s public school teachers walked out in protest over pay occurred in 2001, under then-Gov. Ben Cayetano. The 20-day standoff culminated in a 16% pay increase and $1,100 retention bonus that cost the state $111.7 million, according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

While Hawaii’s teachers’ union is not close to considering an organized strike today, the wave of teacher protests blanketing the country is not lost on some teachers.

At the Maui session at Baldwin High, Hughey, whose wife is also a public school teacher, didn’t mince words.

“I’m done being friends with legislators, I’m done with begging,” he said. “I would like to see something substantial happen, quickly. And I would like to see the state go in the direction of Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia, and start talking about a strike.”

Avi Penhollow, a Kaiser High teacher who attended the Honolulu session, was equally frustrated. “It’s demeaning for professionals to have to come to a session and state the obvious,” he said. “Do we really need a study? It’s insulting to our intelligence. We say we value education, but we don’t. We really don’t.”

DOE Teachers Avi Penhollow at DOE session on salaries held at the McKinley Adult School.
Kaiser High teacher Avi Penhollow said the DOE sessions were “insulting our intelligence” because the pay problem was so obvious. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Penhollow’s remarks drew cheers from some of the several dozen people in attendance, many wearing the signature red HSTA t-shirt whose message reads, “Schools Our Keiki Deserve.”

A handful of Hawaii legislators sat in on the DOE listening sessions — Sen. Michelle Kidani, chair of the Senate Education committee, Rep. Troy Hashimoto, of Maui, and Rep. Amy Perruso, a high school teacher and former HSTA board member.

Kidani said she wished more of her colleagues attended in person. “I think it would be very beneficial to not just my colleagues but decision-makers in the state government to hear how our teachers are trying to survive and the personal things that they have to give up in order to be a teacher,” she said.

HSTA was successful in getting a bill passed in 2018 proposing a constitutional amendment to impose a tax on residential investment property to fund public education, but the ballot question was struck down by the Hawaii Supreme Court before it went up for a vote.

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee DOE Salary session held at McKinley Adult School.
Despite the lament of teachers, HSTA President Corey Rosenlee is optimistic about the direction the state is headed in on salaries because of support from Superintendent Christina Kishimoto and Gov. David Ige. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Rosenlee, the HSTA president, is optimistic about the direction the state is heading in, citing ongoing support teachers have from Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, who requested the study in the first place, Board of Education chairwoman Catherine Payne and Gov. David Ige.

“We’re already having good conversations about how to end the teacher shortage, and we’ll continue to have good conversations,” he said. “This whole listening tour is about what it will take to pay teachers a professional wage and quantify that.”

This is not the first time the DOE has commissioned a teacher pay study.

A study in 2014 compared Hawaii’s teacher pay to school districts similar in size to Hawaii’s and with a similar percentage of low-income students, but didn’t provide any useful analysis, according to Rosenlee.

This year’s study, conducted by the same outside firm, will examine teacher compensation systems, incentive pay structure and alternative compensation models in 21 districts with a similar cost of living, including Boston, Los Angeles, Newark, New York City, San Diego and San Francisco.

In a statement provided to Civil Beat, DOE communications director Lindsay Chambers said the DOE was “definitely open to making adjustments to the compensation structure” but it could not discuss what such changes could look like until the department sees the results and talks with stakeholders.

Help Power Local, Nonprofit News.

Across the nation and in Hawaii, news organizations are downsizing and closing their doors due to the ever-rising costs of keeping local journalism alive and well.

While Civil Beat has grown year over year, still only 1% of our readers are donors, and we need your help now more than ever.

Make a gift today of any amount, and your donation will be matched dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,500, thanks to a generous group of Civil Beat donors.

About the Author