The Hawaii Board of Education voted 5-3 to approve pay increases for the state’s 15 complex area superintendents on Thursday but deferred on similar proposed increases for the deputy superintendent and seven assistant superintendents due to pandemic-related economic concerns.

Though the original proposal was to approve raises for all of these positions, board member Dwight Takeno moved late in the day to give them only to the complex area superintendents due to the uncertain financial outlook for the state Department of Education and questionable optics over executive pay boosts amid the coronavirus crisis.

Complex area superintendents, who are in charge of the district spanning a high school and its feeder schools, make between $145,000 and $175,000 a year. The deputy superintendent makes between $155,000 and $185,000 a year while the assistant superintendents make between $150,000 to $180,000 a year.

DOE Dept of Education adminstrators during joint house/senate hearing at the Capitol.
From left to right: Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami sits with DOE Assistant Superintendents Rodney Luke and Brook Conner. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The proposed pay boosts of up to 3% of total pay are tied to one’s overall performance rating. In a memo advocating for the raises, superintendent Christina Kishimoto said 18 of the total 23 positions considered would be eligible for a raise this year based on performance reviews.

That would amount to $70,000, or .0055% of the DOE’s general fund personnel costs, she said.

“I know there may be (an issue over) optics, because the public doesn’t necessarily understand the nuances of the year this applies to,” she told board members. “But it’s to convey to those people the deep appreciation we have for their work in a trying year.”

Executive pay adjustments typically come up every year before the BOE, with the exception of last year, due to the shaky education budget outlook in the early stages of the pandemic.

With fresh federal stimulus funds now in the picture, Kishimoto argued that the financial uncertainty has stabilized. These raises are tied to the administrator’s evaluation covering July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020, a time frame that has overlapped with the onset of the pandemic, and would be retroactive to July 1, 2020.

The superintendent’s own salary, which is $240,000 a year, is not included in this proposal, since she is subject to an annual evaluation by the board. In any case, a transition committee on the board of education proposed nixing that final evaluation, since Kishimoto will be stepping down when her contract expires July 31.

Finding A Compromise

During initial discussions in an earlier subcommittee meeting, five board members voted in favor of the pay boosts for all 23 positions, while three members voted against them.

Takeno then proposed to bifurcate the vote by isolating the complex area superintendents — who are closer to school-level instruction and planning — from the assistant superintendents — who are in charge of overseeing bigger picture things like the budget, facilities or curriculum.

But there were dissenters for both scenarios.

Bruce Voss supported adjusting salaries for all of the leadership positions, saying competitive pay is needed to retain the talent the DOE needs moving forward. It’s well known that a long-serving DOE high school principal can make more money than a complex area superintendent and thus might not be persuaded to jump into that higher-rung role.

Lynn Fallin agreed that the department should attract “high quality individuals who are passionate about the work and committed to public education” but was concerned about the timing of the raises since overall budget discussions in the Legislature were still underway.

The board members who approved the amended motion in a final vote were Takeno, Fallin, Kamaina Barcarse, Ken Uemura and Shanty Asher, while Voss, Maggie Cox and Kili Namauu were opposed.

Takeno stressed that the pay boosts for Deputy Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami and the seven assistants under Kishimoto had been deferred but could be put to another vote following the Legislature’s final budget allocation to the DOE.

Separately, DOE officials presented their plan for addressing learning gaps in the age of the pandemic. Kishimoto said “additional supports” would be needed for students over the next 12 to 15 months to help bring them up to grade-level expectations.

The DOE’s strategies included summer school programs, student internships, personalized learning programs, mobile learning hubs, credit recovery and enrichment, a summer kindergarten transition program, high school sports camps, early college courses and summer advising and counseling for students.

The superintendent also had requested that the board authorize the use of $65 million of CARES Act funding for summer learning loss, transportation and food services and computer devices for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. The board agreed to the use of funds for the coming school year but not for the following year until data can be collected on efficacy of summer programs this year.

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