The state Department of Education was already under pressure from state lawmakers to provide specifics on how it plans to fund teacher pay incentives that kicked in earlier this month.

Schools officials were grilled again Thursday by Board of Education members who want similar clarity.

The discussion was a continuation — or extension — of the prolonged, often tense back-and-forth between DOE officials and state legislators earlier this week during informational briefings to the House Finance and Lower and Higher Education committees.

“The more disturbing point to me is, you have this $10 million chunk in the budget, why didn’t this happen sooner? Why wasn’t this done five, 10 years ago?” asked Rep. Scot Matayoshi at the House Finance briefing Tuesday, about the decision to implement the pay raises.

The shaky start to that dialogue clearly put board members on edge. They urged DOE officials to be crystal clear to the Legislature about which education services could be on the chopping block to pay for the raises.

Department of Education board meeting.
Board of Education finance committee members asked the DOE for more specifics on how it would fund teacher pay incentives if the Legislature does not appropriate money. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Board member Bruce Voss, who was present at the House Finance briefing, emphasized the DOE would “need to make a compelling argument” to lawmakers that if they don’t extend the request, it will have severe impacts on educational services.

The estimated cost to fund the teacher pay incentives is around $10.5 million for the rest of this fiscal year, which ends June 30, and roughly $26 million for the next fiscal year. The differentials include an annual $10,000 boost to certified special ed teachers and a yearly boost ranging from $3,000 to $8,000 for instructors teaching in remote, hard-to-staff areas.

The state’s teacher shortage has hit special education classrooms and rural schools particularly hard. The pay raises, which kicked in Jan. 7, cover approximately 1,690 special ed teachers and 2,100 people currently teaching in remote areas.

The decision to implement the raises early on was “a calculated risk” to see whether the incentives help keep teachers from leaving during the transfer request period that starts at the beginning of the calendar year, Board of Education Chairwoman Catherine Payne told lawmakers.

In the event the Legislature does not grant Gov. David Ige’s supplemental budget request for these funds, the DOE is on the hook to take the money from its current $2 billion operating budget to keep the teacher incentives going in the future.

The DOE outlined a broad contingency plan in a memo.

Several bullet points suggest it would eventually have to cut services to programs that have a direct impact on learning, like weighted student formula adjustments, bus transportation and IT services.

For now, the department is looking at “low-hanging fruit,” Brian Hallett, the DOE’s interim assistant superintendent for fiscal services, told board members.

“We would be doing short-term measures to be kicking the can down the road,” he said.

Part of that plan is relying on $5.4 million from something called the governor’s “hard restriction,” a reserve of funds typically withheld from state agencies until revenue projections come through.

It also includes an unspecified portion of funds DOE carried over from the previous fiscal year, plus another $1.6 million taken from cost savings in other areas.

“The fact is, we cannot live with 600 classrooms without a certified teacher. I don’t want to leave that question with a financial discussion.” — Hawaii Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto

But should the $5.4 million from the governor’s reserve fund not materialize this fiscal year, the DOE would have to start looking at chipping away at DOE programs.

Impacts could snowball should the Legislature not provide funding for the raises in subsequent years, according to the memo.

“This year we can find some ways (to fund the difference),” Hallett told board members. “But as we look forward, we’re only accelerating to the point where we have no cushion, no safety net, no way to prevent that drama from hitting our schools and that’s what we’re trying to prevent. ”

On Thursday, House Speaker Scott Saiki sent a letter to BOE finance committee chairman Ken Uemura requesting the board “refrain from taking action” on the DOE’s contingency plan to fund these differentials until the department can provide more specifics, according to a copy of the letter seen by Civil Beat.

“The Department has only identified in very general terms where the proposed savings will come from,” Saiki said.

The board tabled the discussion until its next meeting to give DOE officials more time to produce concrete answers.

An Impassioned Plea

Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, now in her third legislative season, said at the meeting the DOE’s strategy “will keep changing based on what we hear from legislators.” She said her conversations with lawmakers have “changed three different times” in the last 24 hours, so the DOE has to be prepared for those shifts.

With some irritation in her voice, she pushed back against the tone of the board’s discussion of funding minutiae to cover the teacher pay raises.

“The fact is, we cannot live with 600 classrooms without a certified teacher. I don’t want to leave that question with a financial discussion,” she said. (Correction: A DOE spokesman said that Kishimoto misspoke about the number of classrooms without certified teachers. There are actually 954 such classrooms.)

“That’s the message and I’m going to keep pushing that —  and it’s very easy to lose that when we’re talking bottom line dollars,” she said. “I want a highly qualified certified teacher in every classroom. It’s not even a funding issue, it is a huge quality issue, it’s a moral issue, an equity issue.”

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