Salary increases for teachers in certain hard-to-staff positions that kicked in early this year will remain in place for the upcoming school year.

On Thursday, the Hawaii Board of Education tabled a request by education officials to suspend the pay increases as a way to help make up for an $84 million budget shortfall related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, it’s not clear where the $27 million needed for the salary hikes for the 2020-21 school year will come from.

Extra pay for hard-to-fill positions has been seen as a key way to address Hawaii’s teacher shortage and retention crisis.

“When we proposed the teacher pay differentials, it was prior to the pandemic and subsequent fiscal fallout,” said Brian Hallett, assistant superintendent in the Hawaii Department of Education’s Office of Fiscal Services.

Kailua Intermediate School Teacher Jimmy Lee team teaches with colleague Ms. Maldonado.
The pay incentives affected approximately 4,200 DOE teachers since January at a cost of $16.5 million. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“In light of the magnitude of the $100 million reduction to this year’s budget for public schools and the steep and growing costs of our COVID-19 response, I do not know where the $27 million will come from.”

The so-called salary differentials apply to special education teachers, Hawaiian language immersion teachers and those based in remote geographic areas.

The yearly pay boosts range from $3,000 to $8,000 for those teaching in remote complexes such as Hana, Keaau, Lanai, Molokai, Kau, Nanakuli, Pahoa and Waianae; $8,000 for Hawaiian immersion teachers; and $10,000 for special education teachers.

Teachers in the hard-to-fill positions submitted testimony to the board earlier this week urging the board to keep the incentives, saying the extra pay enabled them to stay in the profession or even in the islands.

Justin Hughey, a special education teacher at King Kamehameha III Elementary on Maui, testified that he and his wife, who teaches science at Maui High, had been planning to leave Hawaii by this school year until the pay boosts were implemented in January.

“The differentials enabled us to change our mind about moving because, we could finally afford daycare,” he said in written testimony.

Hughey added that it would be “irresponsible” to take away the incentives now because it leaves many teachers in a bind: they cannot apply for a different job this close to the new school year and those who moved out of a general teaching line into a qualifying category now have no recourse.

Based on preliminary DOE data, the pay boosts, which cost $16.5 million for the second half of the 2019-20 school year, made a dent in plugging some shortage areas.

Hawaii grapples with a qualified teacher shortage consisting of about 1,000 vacant positions each year.

For the 2020-21 school year, 106 teachers transferred into a special education line, a bump of 24 teachers from the prior year. In addition, 40 teachers asked to transfer to a remote location, nearly double the amount from the prior year.

The pay incentives apply to special education, Hawaiian language immersion and hard-to-staff teachers in remote locations. April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2020

There were also fewer hard-to-staff teachers this year who signaled intent to leave these positions. Only 40 special ed teachers planned to leave for the 2020-21 school year, compared with 92 the year before.

Similarly, 26 teachers decided to leave their positions in remote areas for the 2020-21 school year compared with 44 from the year before.

In total, the pay boosts benefited 4,213 teachers since January, including 1,950 special ed teachers, 87 Hawaiian language immersion teachers and 1,377 in hard-to-staff locations, according to DOE data.

In a memo to the board, DOE officials requested that the extra compensation be suspended because of the “extraordinarily challenging” past few months from the impacts of COVID-19.

The salary boosts had been a point of contention since they were swiftly passed by the education board by a 7-2 vote in December 2019. The dissenting members were skeptical of where the DOE could come up with the funding before committing to these increases for an indefinite amount of time.

Cindy Covell, DOE assistant superintendent in the Office of Talent Management, said the department could no longer sustain the pay incentives in the current economic climate.

“While we’ve seen the desired effect of the differentials, the current funding is not in place to sustain it,” she said.

Some board members pointed out that to yank the salary boosts now would do a disservice to the teachers who made major decisions, including quitting second jobs, around the higher pay.

“After listening to all the testimonies, we really need to send out a message to our teachers that we are listening,” said board member Shanty Asher. “I know funding is tight but we cannot say there is no money for these teachers.

“There were promises and commitments made.”

BOE member Bruce Voss reminded the rest of the board of the DOE’s projected $84 million shortfall this fiscal year, which Hallett presented to the board’s Finance and Infrastructure Subcommittee earlier in the day.

“We cannot spend money we don’t have,” Voss said. “We can revisit if and when the Legislature finds funds.”

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