Soon after graduating from Harvard last May, Vinny Byju fulfilled his dream of moving to Hawaii to teach social studies to high school students. The islands held an allure not just for their natural beauty, but for their complex history and diversity of people.

Yet, come the end of this school year, Byju, 23, may no longer have the job he holds teaching AP Psychology, Modern Hawaiian History and Participation of Democracy to Aiea High juniors and seniors. He is also part of Teach for America, which helps participants work toward teacher licensure.

“Obviously, there is a lot of uncertainty, but I’m trying to make the most of it,” he said. “I am very happy to be employed for the remainder of the school year, but I have some planning to be done in terms of rent and lease. Right now, I’m sitting tight hoping I can stay in Hawaii.”

As the state reels from a pandemic-induced budget shortfall, the Hawaii Department of Education, which is funded mostly through general funds, is especially feeling the impacts, and that may affect its ability to recruit teachers to the islands.

Hawaii has long faced a chronic shortage of qualified teachers that disproportionately impacts low-income and remote area schools. Historically dependent on mainland teachers, the state’s high cost of living can often be a deterrent to long-term residency here, while many vacancies are often filled by substitutes or those without teaching credentials.

Now, recruitment efforts are rattled by the uncertain budget climate that has existing teachers nervous about their jobs. Not to mention the ongoing pandemic that has nixed the DOE’s annual mainland teacher recruitment visits.

Teacher Vinny Byju.
Vinny Byju, a first-year history teacher at Aiea High, said he “really connected” with his students this year, but his job might not be available come next school year due to budget cuts. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The state is trying to adjust with virtual job fairs and a plan to rehire retired teachers, but it’s a hard sell when even preexisting successful initiatives, like salary differentials for hard-to-fill teachers, face a shaky future.

“The fact is, we still need teachers, we still need support staff,” Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said last week in an interview with Civil Beat’s editorial board. “We’re going to keep focusing on making sure we continue to recruit, and to send the message that we’re running schools. We need a talented team to do that work.”

Public schools were directed late last year to slash their budgets by 10% due to a revenue shortfall brought on by the COVID-19 crisis — a move that could have meant the loss of more than 1,300 school-level positions, including 800 teachers.

The situation has improved with more optimistic revenue projections and hopes for additional federal relief funds. The superintendent informed the Board of Education as recently as last week that school budget reductions were down to 1%.

“We’ve pushed that right back to school principals so we can stabilize school-based decisions,” Kishimoto told Civil Beat. “Our priority is to retain capacity, especially in the classroom and at the school level support services.”

The Recruitment Plan

The restoration of funds led to sighs of relief. Bob Davis, the complex area superintendent for the Leilehua-Mililani-Waialua region, said many of his schools have been able to reinstate positions that had been cut, and to avert layoffs “due to natural attrition via retirement, resignation and positions being unfilled.”

But the Hawaii State Teachers Association has warned that a $100.2 million recurring cut to the DOE budget in the 2021-23 fiscal biennium could still mean the loss of nearly 700 teaching jobs if more federal relief is not forthcoming.

Byju, for one, was told by his principal last month that it didn’t look like his position would be available next year and that he should start looking at other options in the DOE.

“As of now, that is my understanding,” he said in a phone interview Friday. “I heard some rumors, more funding might come up, but my principal told me I should not plan to come back.”

While the staffing landscape remains in flux for next year, the DOE still must ensure it has enough qualified candidates to fill the positions that remain in a state that has faced a perennial shortage of teachers.

HSTA Hawaii State Teachers Association Oahu Office located at 1200 Ala Kapuna Street.
The Hawaii State Teachers Association has warned that a $100 million budget cut could still mean the loss of nearly 700 teaching jobs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

According to the DOE’s Office of Talent Management, there were 364 vacancies at the end of the first semester of the 2020-21 school year, or 2.7% of all teacher positions.

School budget reviews, a possibility to restore positions and an extension of the teacher transfer period is clouding next year’s outlook, according to the office.

“At this time it is difficult to predict teacher vacancies for next school year,” DOE spokeswoman Krislyn Yano said in an email. “We hope to have a better picture by late spring.”

The addition of salary boosts this year ranging from an annual $3,000 to $10,000 for certain hard-to-fill teaching positions, including special education, geographically hard to staff and Hawaiian language immersion positions, has significantly reduced attrition and drawn many people into those teaching lines.

However, the salary differentials, which cost about $30 million per year, have repeatedly faced the chopping block.

In the latest effort, Kishimoto told school leaders in a letter earlier this month that the pay increases would end next year because of the tough economic situation, prompting a flood of written testimony by teachers saying the extra money had allowed them to maintain their livelihoods amid the pandemic.

The state Board of Education rejected the move on Thursday, directing the superintendent to prioritize the continuation of these pay differentials for the next school year, using federal stimulus money if need be.

So far 4,353 of the state’s 13,500 teachers are receiving the salary boosts, which took effect in January 2020.

In her mid-year self-review submitted to the board last month, Kishimoto laid out her vision for teacher recruitment and retention, pointing to the teacher differentials as one of the effective strategies.

“The fact is, we still need teachers, we still need support staff.” — Superintendent Christina Kishimoto

She also listed the state’s plan to rehire retired teachers and its ongoing international recruiting effort. This year, the program brought four teachers from the Philippines to Hawaii schools on a J-1 Visa, which supports international cultural and educational exchanges.

Three of the international teachers are now teaching on Lanai, while one more has been placed in the Nanakuli complex area in Leeward Oahu.

Furthermore, the sixth annual state recruiting fair dubbed “It’s Great to be a Teacher” happened virtually for the first time last month to inform potential candidates about pathways to attaining a teaching license and provide more information about the profession in Hawaii.

This year, the event, normally held at Oahu’s Leeward Community College, attracted a healthy turnout of virtual attendees, with many able to join for the first time since they didn’t have to actually pay for flights to attend in person.

Given the uncertainty, a key goal this year was to entice upcoming high school and community college graduates to join the profession to activate an early interest in the field, event organizers said.

Iolani Zablan, a long-term substitute teacher at Lanai Elementary for the past four years who is from that island, said she was able to attend the event for the first time since it was virtual.

She said she learned a lot of useful information on how to gain certification so she can achieve her goal of installing a permanent Hawaiian language immersion program on the remote island, which currently has none.

A student walks through the hallways of Maui’s Paia Elementary last year, one of the state’s Hawaiian language immersion program sites. April Estrellon/Civil Beat

“A lot of people who want their kids to go to immersion school, they go off island because there’s nothing offered for them here,” she said in a Zoom interview.

Zablan, 27, said it’s tough to pursue a teaching career in light of the budget environment but she’s committed to this path.

“Somebody could really come and take my job at any point in time,” she said. “It scares me because I’ve been with these kids for so long, I don’t want to just leave them.”

Elton Kinoshita, the principal of Lanai High and Elementary School, said his school has been unable to fill two to five teacher vacancies consistently over the last few years. Many of the teachers he does woo over tend to come from similarly small towns on the mainland.

He is also trying to encourage more local residents to explore teaching pathways but praised the J-1 international visa teacher program as filling a need, for now.

“We still want to encourage local Lanai kids to become teachers with Lanai roots. But I think this is a great alternative for the next few years. If our economy stalls for four years, and we’re unable to increase teacher salary, I think this is a very viable solution,” he said.

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