A fourth grade teacher at Moanalua Elementary School must return $16,600 given to her by an elderly donor who volunteered at the school, the Hawaii State Ethics Commission found following an investigation.

Between December 2020 and July 2021, the donor gave Irene Bayudan six cashier’s checks while working on volunteer projects with her at the school, all of which she deposited into her personal bank account, according to the commission’s investigation. 

The donor told the commission that he gave Bayudan the money because “he felt that teachers were underpaid and he wanted to help her out.” 

Moanalua Elementary School principal Lynda Galera had cautioned employees against accepting checks for personal use. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

Teachers are permitted to accept donations for classroom expenses and field trips, and DOE schools regularly accept funds from private donors, but the funds must be spent in alignment with state regulations. 

However, the Hawaii State Ethics Code clearly prohibits state workers, including teachers, from accepting nontraditional compensation for work performed as part of their employment with the state.

Bayudan admitted to the commission that none of the money she accepted from the donor went to school activities. In her defense, she argued that she and the donor had a relationship outside of the school, but this was dismissed by the commission because the relationship originated at Moanalua Elementary and centered around the donor’s volunteer work at the school. 

At a staff meeting on Jan. 6, 2021, just nine days after the donor gave Bayudan the first check, Moanalua Elementary School principal Lynda Galera cautioned employees against accepting checks for personal use. At the meeting, which Bayudan attended, Galera presented a slide on the state’s gifts law which explained that such payments were not allowed unless the funds were used for school purposes. 

Earlier this month, Galera sent a letter to parents informing them of the investigation and assuring them that appropriate actions would be taken. Galera also said that the situation “was an isolated incident and that no school funds or finances were ever affected or misused.” 

The Hawaii State Teachers Association declined to comment on the case and Bayudan and Galera did not respond to phone or email requests for comment.

Hawaii teachers are among the lowest paid in the U.S. when adjusted for cost of living.

In fiscal year 2020, Bayudan’s salary range was between $39,645 and $74,508 depending on her credentials, according to Civil Beat’s public employee salary database

Just last month, about 72% of teachers in Hawaii public schools got a long-awaited raise meant to fix pay inequities that had left some of the DOE’s most experienced teachers underpaid for years. 

Hawaii State Ethics Commission Associate Director Susan Yoza, who has been with the commission for 30 years, said she was unaware of any similar past investigations. 

“I don’t want to say that it’s never occurred, but the amount involved in this case — $16,600 — that’s a large amount and I think it’s part of what’s noteworthy about this case,” she said. 

The commission ruled that the high value of the gift weighed in favor of requiring Bayudan to pay restitution, in part for the sake of “ensuring fairness in compensation for state employees.” 

Bayudan was also required to pay a $750 administrative penalty to the state. The commission deferred to the DOE for further disciplinary action. DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said the issue is being treated as a personnel matter for Moanalua’s principal and complex area superintendent to resolve. 

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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