Hawaii teachers will get one-time bonuses of $2,200 and schools could see much-needed improvements in air quality and cooling under a funding measure passed Thursday by the state Legislature.

Lawmakers unanimously approved House Bill 613, which allocated roughly $557 million in federal relief funds to the Department of Education to be used to upgrade classrooms, support programs to help students catch up after a year of mostly distance learning and reward teachers after a particularly stressful academic year.

“The availability of federal funds announced in March 2021 have allowed us to begin addressing longstanding issues within our public school system, such as our lack of adequately cooled classrooms,” Rep. Justin Woodson, chair of the House education committee, said in a press release issued ahead of the vote.

Kamiloiki Elementary School.
Many schools operated in virtual mode for much of the 2020-21 school year due to the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The DOE, whose $2.1 billion budget is mostly funded through state general appropriations, faced a dire outlook over the past year, with threats of teacher furloughs and layoffs due to a state budget pandemic-related shortfall.

The infusion of federal funds, particularly under the American Rescue Plan Act’s $412 million earlier this year, allowed the department to stave off many potential program reductions and let schools rein in anticipated cuts to staff.

The bill, which goes to the governor’s desk, detailed a long list of specific uses for the funds, including $110 million to outfit more schools with air conditioning and air filtration systems and to support things like summer school to give a boost to students who struggled with online classes or blended in-person and virtual instruction.

It also appropriated $29.7 million to issue $2,200 one-time bonuses to all public school teachers — estimated at around 13,500 statewide —  as a “stabilization payment” to help with teacher retention.

Salary differentials given to teachers working in remote areas and other hard-to-staff positions like special education and Hawaiian language immersion also were saved with $32.5 million allocated to continue them.

Those differentials, which began in the 2020-21 fiscal year, were once in danger of being yanked until the Board of Education told the DOE to find a way to maintain them.

Retaining Teachers

Corey Rosenlee, the president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, praised the measure, especially the funds to improve the air quality in classrooms — a continuation of a $100 million “heat abatement” plan signed by Gov. David Ige in 2016.

“This is a great step in trying to make sure that our kids have healthy classrooms for learning and to make sure that there is proper filtration so that students don’t have to sit in hot classrooms,” Rosenlee said in an interview, adding that the bonuses will help with teacher retention.

“Without qualified teachers, we’re going to have learning loss,” he said. “The hope is, we really keep as many of our teachers as possible for next year.”

The bill also allocated $100.3 million to the state’s 15 complex areas, to bolster services like social, emotional and mental health needs and support STEM learning, career and technical education, Hawaiian education and other community-based learning needs.

Under the American Rescue Plan, $122 billion was distributed to school districts across the country to address students’ academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs. The federal blueprint said a local education agency can use these funds “for a wide variety of activities related to educating students during the COVID-19 pandemic and addressing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on students and educators.”

During a Zoom media briefing Thursday once the 2021 legislative session adjourned, House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke said the two education committee chairs — Woodson, and Sen. Michelle Kidani — “worked very hard, worked with some DOE personnel and talked to many complex areas and tailored (the bill) to meet the obligations of the federal government (requirements for funding use).”

In an emailed statement provided to Civil Beat Thursday, DOE’s chief financial officer, Brian Hallett, said the department will be analyzing the bill.

“Part of that effort includes working through the federal requirements and allowable uses of these federal funds to determine if the uses prescribed in the bill are viable,” he said. Hallett added the DOE has yet to find out what its final operating budget will be for the upcoming fiscal year.

“We do know that the Department’s general fund budget has been cut by more than $120 million; however, we are still awaiting the release of details to know where and how those cuts were made,” he said.

In a separate provision, the bill stripped anticipated pay raises for complex area superintendents — covering the 2019-20 school year which the board had approved at its last meeting — until other department heads in Hawaii receive a raise, which is not expected until 2023.

The House finance chair said it “just didn’t seem prudent” that complex area leaders would be eligible for a pay raise when executive, legislative and judiciary pay has been deferred.

Luke said lawmakers were “shocked” to learn about the approved pay raises by the board of education and it “disturbed a lot of individuals” given the pay raise suspensions in other branches of government.

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