Hawaii’s school superintendent is facing a rebuke from the head of the Board of Education after she informed complex area leaders and principals last week that salary boosts intended to retain teachers in hard-to-fill positions would end next year because of the tough economic situation.

Catherine Payne, chairwoman of the state Board of Education, challenged Superintendent Christina Kishimoto’s authority to “unilaterally discontinue” these pay differentials in a memo posted online ahead of the board meeting scheduled for Thursday.

At issue is a Feb. 9 letter Kishimoto sent to school leaders, without advance notification to the board, that certain pay boosts that began in January 2020 will not continue next school year because of the budget shortfall brought on by the pandemic — despite the overwhelming success of the program.

“The implementation of this pilot has produced the desired and intended effect of lowering vacancy and retention rates for these high-need areas,” Kishimoto wrote. But, she added, the Hawaii Department of Education “determined it can no longer afford to provide these incentives” and “has no choice but to discontinue these shortage differential payouts effective at the start of the school year 2021-2022.”

Teachers also responded with hundreds of pages of written testimony saying the additional pay has maintained their livelihoods this year.

DOE Superintendent Kishimoto Chair Catherine Payne during board meeting.
Board of Education chairwoman Catherine Payne, right, says she first learned of Superintendent Christina Kishimoto’s plans to discontinue the pay boosts the same day that school principals did. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“There will be (no) way to live here, with the insane housing prices and so few extra income options now, due to COVID related business closures,” wrote Todd Holmberg, a special education teacher at Maui High, adding that it would be “game over for me and many other teachers.”

As of Jan. 11, 4,353 public school teachers were receiving a pay differential under the program, including 2,029 special education teachers, 2,230 teachers in hard-to-staff geographic areas and 94 Hawaiian language immersion teachers.

“The Board did not expect or intend for the differentials for (special education), hard-to-staff, or Hawaiian language immersion teachers to end in 2021 and it did not instruct Superintendent Christina Kishimoto to unilaterally discontinue the differentials,” BOE chairwoman Catherine Payne wrote in Board of Education materials.

She requested that Kishimoto rescind her Feb. 9 letter and refrain from taking action on the pay boosts without prior approval from the Board of Education, which planned to discuss the issue on Thursday.

Data collected through October 2020 showed just how much of a dent these salary boosts have made in plugging Hawaii’s teacher shortage crisis. Special education teachers receive an annual boost of as much as $10,000, Hawaiian language teachers up to $8,000 and those teaching in remote areas an extra $3,000 to $8,000.

Making A Dent

The percentage of special education teacher vacancies plummeted by 45% — from 125 in October 2018 to 69 as of Oct. 1, 2020, according to DOE data. Additionally, 43% more teachers chose to move into a special education teaching line in 2020-21 than the year before, from 73 teachers to 129 teachers.

Forty-one teachers chose to move into hard-to-fill positions in remote or rural areas in 2020-21 compared with 27 the year before, a 52% increase.

Additionally, 94 teachers chose to teach Hawaiian language immersion in the 2020-21 school year, a 7% increase from 87 the year before.

The teacher differentials — projected to cost around $30 million for a full school year — have been an issue since they were approved by the Board of Education in December 2019.

Debate intensified amid the economic crisis that raised fears of budget cuts following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. The Board already deflected another attempt by the DOE to curtail the incentives for this school year.

When it became clear the salary boosts were on the line last summer, DOE teachers testified en masse to preserve them. Some said they had suspended plans to move back to the mainland, or delayed retirement, due to the additional money this was providing.

In her letter to school leaders, Kishimoto cited a projected 10% cut to the DOE’s budget as the reason for discontinuing the pay boosts. But Gov. David Ige recently downsized that forecast to 2.5% — potentially saving the DOE roughly $123 million to its base budget over the next two fiscal years.

When asked about this discrepancy, DOE communications director Nanea Kalani said the revised 2.5% reduction “is only a recommendation at this point and still requires legislative agreement and approval to be reflected in the state budget.”

“The Department did seek legislative funding last session to extend the initiative because it was producing results,” Kalani said in an email. “Should funding become available, the Department will look into the feasibility of reinstating these incentives.”

Payne, the board chairwoman, also took issue with the DOE’s characterization of the salary incentives as “a pilot,” saying the DOE had initially described them as the “first phase in a multi-phase plan that would involve other groups of teachers.”

“It wasn’t described as ‘a pilot’ until very recently,” Payne told Civil Beat in an interview on Monday. “These differentials were intended very specifically to maintain teachers in very critical areas where we have our most vulnerable students.”

“I think words are very important … and the evidence is very clear that (the differentials) made a big difference in keeping teachers and recruiting teachers in these positions,” she added.

Kalani reiterated the DOE’s position by saying the salary differentials were “part of a pilot, meaning by design it was a temporary initiative to try a new approach to teacher recruitment and retention.”

Up For Debate

Though the superintendent’s letter had a definitive and final tone to it, the Board on Thursday could vote to direct her to rescind that letter. But that wouldn’t necessarily resolve how the department can fund the salary differentials moving forward.

One possible funding hatch, according to Payne, would be additional COVID-19 relief funds from the federal government.

Hawaii’s DOE has come under fire for its proposed use of existing CARES Act money, including roughly $48.5 million to provide “one on one on-demand tutoring support” and academic coaches to students left behind academically from the pandemic.

That proposal, which is also scheduled for discussion at Thursday’s board meeting, led the Hawaii House and Senate education chairs to propose a pair of bills last week mandating the DOE to use those federal funds to avert teacher layoffs.

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