The state Department of Education has unveiled a financially ambitious plan to keep teachers in Hawaii in high shortage areas such as special education, Hawaiian language immersion and geographically isolated locations.

At a Tuesday morning press conference at Central Middle School, the governor joined the school superintendent, Board of Education chairwoman, teachers’ union president and area school leaders to voice support for the proposal, even though it was never explicitly stated where the first round of funding would come from.

“Certainly, if the Board takes action (at its Thursday meeting), we would make a commitment to the differential. And we would be obligated,” Gov. David Ige said after the event. “If in fact we present to the Legislature and the Legislature doesn’t fund, then we have to come up with the money somehow.”

Dept of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto during press conference announcing pay increases for special needs teachers.

DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said the teacher recruitment and retention problem was “solvable” during a press conference with Gov. David Ige and BOE chairwoman Catherine Payne.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The DOE’s plan calls for extending a $10,000 yearly pay differential to qualified and licensed special education classroom teachers; an $8,000 pay differential to qualified and licensed Hawaiian language immersion teachers; and between $3,000 and $8,000 to teachers working in remote locations like Lanai and Molokai.

These are historically high-vacancy areas within DOE’s teaching force that serve as a barrier to student achievement. As the state grapples with persistent teacher turnover and reliance on unlicensed emergency hires exacerbated by the state’s high cost of living, the DOE is hoping this financial boost might convince more teachers trained in these areas to join their staff and stay put.

The state employs about 13,700 teachers. Average teacher salary is around $60,000, which is considered among the lowest in the country when adjusted for cost of living.

While the department has offered a $3,000 incentive bonus for more than a decade for teachers in geographically remote areas, it doesn’t currently offer differentiated pay for a specific subject area like special education.

“I feel very strongly that if we don’t do something that is significantly impactful to address the increasing shortage of qualified teachers, especially those who teach our most needy students, we are not going to accomplish the big goals we have for student achievement and developing good citizens who are contributing to the community,” said Catherine Payne, chairwoman of the state Board of Education.

A major question, however, is where the DOE will come up with the funding for this proposal. In a memo released ahead of Thursday’s next Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Christina Kishimoto recommended an effective date of Jan. 7.

At Tuesday’s conference, Kishimoto said this date was chosen because it comes right before the “teacher transfer period” at the end of February, when teachers can request a school transfer. With more pay, teachers in remote geographical locations, for instance, might be convinced to stay for a longer period of time, she said.

The superintendent also acknowledged the funding proposal was “somewhat of a risk” given the uncertainty of a continuous funding stream starting with the 2021 fiscal year. But she sounded a confident note when it came to extending such bonus pay for at least next school semester.

“For those teachers who start on this Phase 1 work, those teachers will be paid through the semester,” she said.

For the remaining half of the 2020 fiscal year, which ends June 30, that means approximately $8.5 million to fund the special education teacher pay; $6 million for the rural teacher pay and $216,000 for the immersion teacher pay, for a total of approximately $14.7 million.

Total estimated cost for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins July 1, would be around $30.4 million, an amount the DOE is expected to lobby the Legislature to secure.

Ige on Tuesday said he will request such funds in his executive supplemental budget to be submitted to the Legislature later this month.

“We’re going to make the request to the Legislature and we’re going to justify the appropriation and seek to get it approved,” he said. The Legislature next convenes on Jan. 15. It would not approve the 2021 fiscal budget until the end of session in May.

So when it comes to the $14.7 million needed to pay teachers for the earlier time frame, Ige was delicate in his word choice.

“It’s part of the financial plan,” he said, referencing higher projections from recent Council on Revenues meetings and availability of “more funds” without further elaboration.

House Finance Committee chair Sylvia Luke, who met with Kishimoto and the governor’s legislative representative on Monday, was cautiously guarded in her reaction to the proposal.

“Conceptually, this is something that definitely needs to be addressed,” she said Monday, of the state’s teacher recruitment and retention challenges. “I just don’t know if putting more money into this specific thing will yield better results.”

The pay differentials must be approved by the Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the governor.

Vacancy Numbers

The proposed pay differential would most heavily impact special education teachers in the state and teachers living in remote locations. It also acknowledges the DOE’s 2017-2021 collective bargaining agreement with HSTA and makes the case there are existing DOE civil service employees being provided a differential due to a labor shortage in their areas of expertise.

As of the end of November, there were 1,691 special education teachers statewide. In the 2018-19 school year, there were 154 vacant positions — a 7% vacancy rate  — of a total 2,212 special ed teaching positions. The memo pointed out that a number of other large school districts around the country offer a higher salary to their special education teachers or put them on a separate salary schedule.

Teachers in remote geographic locations could be awarded a pay differential of up to $8,000 based on whether they fulfill certain criteria.

According to a chart prepared by the DOE, teachers in the Hana complex on Maui, Lanai, Molokai and Waianae and Nanakuli on Oahu’s west side would be eligible for the top $8,000 bonus, along with teachers at Olomana School, an alternative education school, and Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind.

When it comes to Hawaiian language immersion teachers, the DOE estimates only 54 of the 161 positions in the state are filled with qualified and licensed instructors — those who speak Hawaiian fluently and are licensed by the Hawaii Teachers Standards Board.

The DOE’s announcement signals the first of what will be a series of steps to address the state’s teacher shortage. Kishimoto is expected to announce a pilot project early next year to help resolve the issue of disproportionate pay compared to years of experience on the current DOE teacher salary scale.

“We are rolling out a comprehensive approach to recruitment and retention that will have multiple factors and phase II will be the slice of work that we will be pulling out of that, that we think is most critical to happen,” she said.

The department recently held a series of teacher “listening” sessions to gather information for a pay adequacy study by an outside consultant expected to be released by the end of the year.

The HSTA supports boosting incentive pay for certain shortage areas but also believes the DOE should make “a commitment to examine whether all qualified and licensed teachers should be provided with additional compensation for recruitment and retention,” according to the memo.

Special education teachers and those based in hard to staff locations make up more than half of the state’s teaching vacancies, according to Corey Rosenlee, HSTA president.

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