Hawaii’s school superintendent on Thursday reassured the state’s tens of thousands of teachers she would work to avoid pay cuts as lawmakers grapple with a possible $1 billion state budget shortfall brought on by the coronavirus.

“We are not supporting a pay cut,” Christina Kishimoto said at a live-streamed Board of Education meeting. “We are asking if there is a possibility to switch out general fund dollars used for salaries with CARES Act funding (in order) to have all students back, all staff back, next school year.”

The superintendent’s pledge came amid a wave of teacher testimony to the state board ahead of the meeting in which educators pleaded with members to spare them pay cuts or furloughs in light of the already challenging financial circumstances before the pandemic hit.

Board of Education meeting. Catherine Payne .
The Board of Education in a virtual meeting heard from the superintendent on proposed program cuts due to an altered budget. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The board has received more than 930 letters since Gov. David Ige first floated a proposal in mid April to cut state employee salaries, including teachers, by 20% due to the economic tailspin. While the governor has since walked back from that proposal, saying he sees the cuts as “a last resort,” nothing is off the table yet.

With the Legislature set to reconvene Monday to tackle cutting $1 billion from the budget, the superintendent on Thursday said things are “very fluid,” and that the fiscal impacts of COVID-19 will be felt deeply by the DOE long after the pandemic is over.

“The state has shifted to looking at all other options first” before pay cuts, she said. “We applaud this shift and will continue to be at the table to push for alternatives to cuts in pay.”

With its $1.9 billion annual budget, the DOE swallows up nearly a quarter of the state’s general fund budget, which is roughly $8 billion this year.

The DOE, whose budget is funded through general funds, including general excise tax and individual income tax, outlined to board members Thursday potential savings of $150 million through the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The savings could include $18 million in funding of substitute teachers, $17 million in salary savings, $15 million in student transportation services, $50 million in Impact Aid funds and $21 million in restrictions to Weighted Student Formula funding.

DOE’s chief financial officer, Brian Hallett, assured board members this is only “a menu of possible options.”

“At this point it’s not choices that have been made,” he said.

The Hawaii DOE is poised to receive $43.4 million from the School Emergency Relief Fund of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, plus some portion of $9.9 million set aside in the CARES Act for the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, a discretionary sum that is to be shared among public schools, private schools and higher-ed institutions based on need.

Kishimoto said it’s still unclear how much federal stimulus funding Hawaii schools will receive as well as how much flexibility state education leaders will have in using CARES Act money, which is designated for things like special education services, homeless students, educational technology purchases and summer and after-school programming.

For now, the Hawaii DOE said it is looking to prioritize the federal funding for summer school, including credit recovery programs; paid internships within the DOE offered to high school graduates to help with Career and Technical Education credits; purchases of tech devices and installation of broadband hotspots; and distance learning training for staff.

Public schools have stopped in-person instruction for the rest of the school year, which ends May 28. They’ll begin the new academic year on Aug. 4 with a hybrid model that includes distance learning and in-classroom instruction.

The DOE also wants to use federal money for teacher pay differentials, which took effect at the beginning of this year. The differentials range from an extra $3,000 to $10,000 a year, for those teaching in hard-to-staff areas like special education, Hawaiian language immersion and rural, remote locations.

Prior to the pandemic, the DOE and Hawaii State Teachers Association had sought $26 million from the Legislature to continue salary differentials next school year.

Kishimoto said she hopes some part of the CARES Act funding can be reserved to continue the salary boosts, but acknowledged the impact of the pandemic “is only going to exacerbate the concern and crisis of (the teacher) shortage.”

One DOE teacher, Mary Garrett, a teacher at Honokaa Elementary near the northern tip of Big Island, testified she recently decided to leave her teaching post and move to North Carolina, due to the threat of a looming 20% pay cut in Hawaii, and higher pay on the mainland.

“How can I afford to pay rent, student loans, car payment, and food? Looking at my projected new salary, I will not be able to afford to continue living here,” she wrote to the board.

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