The size of the crowd, spilling out into the hallway outside the fourth-floor meeting room at the Hawaii Department of Education building, was a telling indicator Thursday of the overwhelming support for teacher salary differentials proposed by education officials.

The Board of Education voted 7-2 for a plan to provide higher pay for special education teachers, Hawaiian language teachers and those who teach in remote, hard-to-staff schools.

But the approval came only after lengthy and pointed questioning of Hawaii Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto and BOE chairwoman Catherine Payne about where the tens of millions of dollars in funding for the added pay would come from.

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Hawaii Board of Education members and school officials stand as Hawaiian immersion students sing an oli at the conclusion of a subcommittee meeting.

Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

“I’m concerned if we don’t move forward with this today, it will send a message to the field that we are not behind this — and to the Legislature that we are not in full support of this as a board,” Payne said moments before the vote, when it was clear several members had lingering doubts about the integrity of the plan.

“I think we need to have some trust in our governor and the Legislature that they understand the critical nature of all this,” Payne said.

The question now is whether Gov. David Ige will follow through in his public pledge to secure the $14.7 million to support the pay incentives for the remainder of the fiscal year — and whether the DOE can  successfully lobby the Legislature next session to secure another $30.4 million to continue the tiered pay in the 2021 fiscal year.

Some are worried that there would only be a 1 1/2 year guarantee of funding in the best case scenario.

“Where is this money coming from and can this money be guaranteed?” board member Dwight Takeno said during the discussion. “I just want to make sure once we commit, there will be continued funding and … we’re not taking from another program.”

The DOE’s proposal, the first in a planned series of bold teacher pay initiatives to be rolled out by Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, calls for paying licensed special education teachers an additional $10,000 per year; Hawaiian language immersion teachers an extra $8,000 a year; and those teaching in isolated locations between $3,000 and $8,000 extra a year.

A DOE memo outlining the rationale for these raises details the cost implications and critical teacher vacancy rates in these specific areas, where the dearth of qualified teachers and high turnover are hardest felt.

Nearly 400 pages of testimony were submitted to the board ahead of Thursday’s meeting. With the exception of a few letters, which argued for raising pay for all types of teachers, the vast majority applauded the proposal.

Most of the letters were from teachers, students and parents of kids enrolled in DOE’s Hawaiian language immersion public schools, known as Kaiapuni schools, 18 of which exist statewide.

More than 20 people testified in person, including young students from schools like Pu’ohala Elementary, which has a Hawaiian language immersion program.

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The Board of Education meeting Thursday drew a packed crowd of people largely in support of a plan for teacher pay differentials in certain specialized areas.

Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

“It’s teaching our children through a different lens, and that requires extra compensation,” said Christopher “Baba” Yim, principal of Anuenue School, a Hawaiian immersion school on Oahu.

For the first time in a while, he felt “hope,” said Osa Tui, Jr., registrar at Oahu’s McKinley High, adding that he was hearing from teachers they were considering holding off on retirement since the pay proposal was first announced.

But the board discussion focused on the details.

DOE Board Member Dwight Takeno.

Board Member Dwight Takeno voted to oppose approving the pay differential due to the uncertainty of the funding stream in the future.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Nolan Kawano, a board member, questioned why the Hawaiian language immersion teachers would be receiving a pay differential that is $2,000 lower than what the proposal would pay special education teachers.

His argument boiled down to equity, and the fact there is an existing Board of Education policy that explicitly states Hawaiian language teachers need to be “appropriately compensated for (their) additional qualifications” of teaching in both the Hawaiian language and English language.

“This is something that we are supposed to do, not (just) something we want to do,” he said.

Pay Raises Would Start In January

The governor has said he will include the requested funding in his supplemental executive budget request to the Legislature.

Kishimoto hopes to have the pay raises take effect by Jan. 7, before the DOE’s teacher transfer period kicks in, which is when teachers request a transfer to a different school or teaching line.

The pay differentials for the rest of the current school year — January through June 2020 — would cost a total $14.7 million. Part of the discussion focused on where this money would come from in case the governor cannot successfully secure the funds.

With regard to the increases to Hawaiian immersion teachers’ salaries, which would total $216,000 for this fiscal year, the DOE could absorb that out of its operating budget, Kishimoto said.

When it comes to covering the other shortage areas, she acknowledged, “We would have to make an adjustment to the entire budget,” including looking at tapping into a 5% “holdback” that totals about $5.4 million.

“If we’re not willing to take that risk, which is starting to pay it out in January, then we are not putting the right foot forward as we go into the Legislative (session),” Kishimoto said.

Payne, who is a supporter of the pay proposal, said if DOE officials have to take money out of its own operating budget to prop this up, it won’t come from school level programs but “state office restrictions” such as salary savings and “other areas that will … affect support services at the highest level,” she said during the discussion.

After the vote, Takeno explained why he didn’t support the measure.

“We’re buying something we don’t have money for,” he said. “We’re messing with peoples’ lives. If you don’t have (the funding), you have to take it from somewhere else.”

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