Katherine Poythress – Honolulu Civil Beat https://www.civilbeat.org Honolulu Civil Beat - Investigative Reporting Sun, 19 May 2019 01:07:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.0.3 Taken for a Ride: Hawaii Lawmakers Still Plan To Cut School Bus Funding https://www.civilbeat.org/2012/03/15146-taken-for-a-ride-hawaii-lawmakers-still-plan-to-cut-school-bus-funding/ Fri, 09 Mar 2012 23:29:28 +0000 House Finance Committee Chairman says Department of Education must reduce student transportation costs.

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The House Finance Committee is calling the Hawaii Department of Education‘s bluff on school buses.

House budget writers are giving district officials millions of dollars less than the district says it needs to provide school bus service to all regular education students on all islands.

Education leaders told lawmakers earlier this session that 17,000 students on Oahu could end up without school bus services next year unless the Hawaii Legislature gave them $42 million more for student transportation than the $29 million that was already budgeted.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie had asked for only $25 million more for school buses, and last week the House handed the state budget bill over to the Senate with an even lower figure set aside: $20.3 million.

“We didn’t give them anything more than what was approved by the governor, and we cut that amount by about 20 percent,” said House Finance Chairman Marcus Oshiro. “It was a collective decision from the representatives from both Oahu and the neighbor islands — both rural folks, as well as people from the urban core. I think we all understood that there’s much more to be done to cut costs in this area.”

Civil Beat’s Taken for a Ride series has documented school bus costs that doubled over five years while competition for contracts ended abruptly. Lawmakers, auditors, the Hawaii State Board of Education and the FBI have all taken note of the situation and launched their own investigations into the underlying causes. Meanwhile, the Legislature threatened to zero out funding for regular school bus routes until the department came up with a satisfactory plan for reducing costs.

Legislators weren’t entirely satisfied by a report from the department and a subsequent hearing about cost-cutting options. So they restored some of the funding for regular school buses, but not all that the department asked for.

“I think the threat from the DOE was that if they didn’t get their full request, they would cease providing school bus service on Oahu,” Oshiro said.

He says he is skeptical that the department would actually eliminate services for students. “I was not interested in giving them more money on top of what the governor approved,” Oshiro said. “I was really worried about their current ability to track and monitor the contracts and ensure we’re getting the biggest bang for our buck. I expect them to be upset, but that’s part of the process.”

He said it is clear to him that the department has “failed” in monitoring the usage and ridership of current bus routes, and that he suspects there’s a lot of room to consolidate them.

He examined Leeward Oahu in particular, which he said uses more than 70 buses, some of which take two trips per day. If each of the buses were filled to their maximum capacity, Oshiro said, the department would actually require only about 35 buses to transport them.

It’s time for the department to consider changing its habits, Oshiro said, and his committee was serious about communicating that message.

Oshiro said his committee also came up with a median daily cost per bus based on service on the neighbor islands, which are more expensive to operate because they make the longest runs. He took that median cost and applied it to all the contracts statewide to come up with a dollar figure for all regular student transportation next year. That worked out to $20.3 million and would be in addition to the $29 million already set aside for special ed students, homeless kids and others who qualify for mandatory transportation under federal rules.

That $49 million is about what was appropriated by the Legislature last year for bus service. But the state actually spends about $75 million for student transportation including federal funds and money the department transferred from other programs in order to pay bus contractors.

And Randy Moore, assistant superintendent of school facilities and support services, insists it will be necessary to cut student services if the full $71 million the department requested for school buses next year is not filled. He’s just not sure yet which services will be cut — transportation or something else.

“If the appropriation for student transportation is less than the cost of providing the service, either student transportation service will be reduced or other educational programs will be reduced,” he wrote in an email to Civil Beat last week. “While DOE has been working with bus contractors on a variety of student transportation cost reductions, the dollar amount of cost reductions that can be achieved in fiscal year 2012-13 will not be large, unless service is reduced significantly. The likely result of underfunding student transportation costs will be a range of program reductions, including student transportation.

“Which programs will have to be reduced or eliminated will be a painful decision for both DOE administrators and Board of Education members. The objective will be to minimize the long-term negative impact on students of program reductions.”

The budget will still go through more iterations as it passes through the Legislature, and Oshiro said he expects his proposal to be taken seriously and spark some lively dialogue.

“The good thing about it is that, in the normal course of the process, (department officials are) going to see this and probably react to it with grave concerns and criticism, which I expect and accept,” he said. “Then they need to come back and explain and re-justify their request to the senators downstairs. (Senate Education Chairwoman Jill Tokuda) is tough, and (Ways and Means Chairman David Ige) is going to be tough, too.

“I think you’ve touched a nerve, and it’s all going to the good of the state. Any dollar we spend getting kids to and from school is a dollar less we’re spending on actual learning in the classroom.”

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Hawaii State Salaries 2012: Pay Per Pupil By Complex Area https://www.civilbeat.org/2012/03/15143-hawaii-state-salaries-2012-pay-per-pupil-by-complex-area/ Fri, 09 Mar 2012 22:39:35 +0000 Breakdown shows lowest area spends 38 percent less per pupil on salaries.

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The Hawaii Department of Education spends as little as $4,965 on salaries per pupil and as much as $6,868 depending on which complex area they’re in, according to an analysis by Civil Beat.

That’s a gap of 38 percent between the complex areas with the lowest and highest per-pupil personnel expenses.

This year for the first time as part of its effort to examine government spending, Civil Beat was able to obtain Education Department salaries by complex area and school. We analyzed the salary and location information of the department’s 22,009 employees and found the total personnel costs for each of the state’s 15 geographic school areas.

Our analysis found that the Campbell-Kapolei complex area spends the least on employee salaries, at $4,901 per pupil.

Kailua-Kaleheo spends the most per-pupil on salaries, at $6,557.

Here is a table of the salary expenses by complex area:

Rank Complex Area Enrolled Total Per Pupil
1 CA Kailua-Kalaheo 6495 $6,557
2 CA Kau-Keaau-Pahoa 5474 $6,405
3 CA Castle-Kahuku 8211 $6,276
4 CA Hana-Lahainaluna-Lanai-Molokai 4882 $6,106
5 CA Hilo-Laupahoehoe-Waiakea 7856 $6,055
6 CA Kaimuki-McKinley-Roosevelt 15311 $5,856
7 CA Nanakuli-Waianae 7888 $5,840
8 CA Hawaii-West 10226 $5,707
9 CA Farrington-Kaiser-Kalani 15940 $5,504
10 CA Kapaa-Kauai-Waimea 9311 $5,467
11 CA Leilehua-Mililani-Waialua 17485 $5,451
12 CA Aiea-Moanalua-Radford 15479 $5,278
13 CA Pearl City-Waipahu 15242 $5,142
14 CA Baldwin-Kekaulike-Maui 15897 $4,991
15 CA Campbell-Kapolei 16407 $4,901

The discrepancies are largely because of decisions made at the school level, said Kailua-Kalaheo Complex Area Superintendent Suzanne Mulcahy.

For example, she has a couple of schools in her complex area where the principal and teachers opt for small class sizes, which increases personnel costs at those schools.

“One school could be spending 95 percent of its funding on personnel, whereas another may be spending only 80 percent,” Mulcahy said.

The amount of support the complex area superintendent provides to schools can also impact school-level salary costs, she said. A complex area superintendent could opt to hire a couple of highly efficient employees who can travel to all the schools in the complexes and meet certain school-level needs that way, for example.

  • Lena Tran contributed to this story by analyzing the data provided by the Department of Education.

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Hawaii State Salaries 2012: Department of Education https://www.civilbeat.org/2012/03/15119-hawaii-state-salaries-2012-department-of-education/ Thu, 08 Mar 2012 01:43:25 +0000 Last two years at Department of Education were marked by salary cuts and big leadership turnover.

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The last two years at Hawaii’s Department of Education were marked by leadership turnover and pay cuts, even as the overall budget and student enrollment grew.

For the second year in a row, Civil Beat filed a request under Hawaii’s open records law asking for the names, positions and salaries of all employees of the Hawaii Department of Education. The request is part of a larger effort to make more transparent how the state spends taxpayer money.

The education department is Hawaii’s largest single expense, accounting for one-quarter of the state’s $5.6 billion general fund.

With debt service and benefit costs for 22,000 employees, it costs taxpayers approximately $2.5 billion annually to run 255 regular public schools and 13 special- and adult-education schools. That’s up from $2.4 billion in the 2011 budget year. The department spends about $1.1 billion for salaries and the state pays about $500 million for fringe benefits. Together, those amount to 64 percent of the state’s total education expenditures.

The department’s Office of Human Resources provided Civil Beat with a list of all 22,009 department employees that included their names, professional titles, salary ranges and location (e.g. Campbell High School, or Superintendent’s Office).

Using that data, we found that many of our findings from 2010 still hold true:

  • The highest-paid employees still make about nine times more than the lowest-paid.
  • Many employees — a dramatic increase from last year — potentially qualify for the state Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Who Works Where

The 22,009 employees fill 153 unique positions within the department, from speech pathologists and school psychologists to engineers and legal assistants — not to mention teachers and principals. The unionized employees are represented by 10 distinct bargaining units — each with its own contract — in three unions.

The employees can be broken down into three major groups: Teachers, education officers, and all others. Teachers still account for more than half of the employees, at 57 percent. Education officers, such as principals, vice principals, athletic directors and complex area superintendents, make up another 4 percent. All others — like speech pathologists, psychologists and food service workers — make up the remaining 39 percent.

Analyzed another way, the data show that 13,136 department employees, or 60 percent, are directly involved with teaching students at the school level on a daily basis.

About 5,000 employees, or nearly one-quarter, work in pure support positions and don’t have regular direct interactions with students. They are the electricians, inventory clerks, custodians and office employees.

The third-largest category is educational support, which accounts for 3,600 employees, or 16 percent. These are the teaching assistants, librarians, social workers and speech pathologists.

The fourth group is administrators, which accounts for 313 employees, only 1 percent of the total.

A few other interesting findings:

  • As many as 4,028 employees, or 18 percent, could qualify for federal nutrition assistance of up to $314 a month, based on the low end of their salary ranges.1 Last year, the number was 903, or 4 percent.
  • Department salaries range from a low of $17,176 to a high of $147,992, compared with the previous low and high of $18,078 and $155,782.
  • The 13 highest-paid high school principals have the potential to make almost $5,400 more than the superintendent. Last year, the high end of their income range would have earned them $6,000 more than Matayoshi, who now earns $142,500, down from $150,000 in 2010 and significantly less than the national average of $211,900 for school superintendents of districts with 25,000 students or more.
  • At least 94 school principals can make up to $33,992 more annually than the $114,000 that the four top-paid complex area superintendents make.

Number of Students Growing faster than Number of Employees

Despite the department’s overall budget increase, the number of employees has not kept pace with enrollment growth, and they’re earning less.

Legislators prescribed an $88.2 million labor cost savings for all state employees, $37.7 million of which was taken out of the education department’s personnel budget.

Most employees, including the state-level ones all the way up to Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, took the equivalent of a 5-percent pay cut through a combination of furlough days, increased health costs and salary decreases.

But even as salaries dropped 5 percent from their 2010-2011 levels, the state’s budget for Department of Education employee benefits went up by $60 million, or 13 percent.

The salary ranges in our database have been adjusted for reductions due to furloughs, unlike the salary data we published in 2010.

While the state’s mean annual salary for all occupations climbed from $42,760 to $43,740, the percentage of department employees with incomes above it remained the same, at 68 percent.

The number of students enrolled in the state’s regular public schools increased by 1.2 percent (from 169,992 to 172,109), while the number of employees only increased by 80, or 0.3 percent (from 21,929 to 22,009).

Even though employment numbers remained level throughout the department, there was turnover at the state level.

The department acquired a new permanent superintendent in 2010 who, with the newly appointed Hawaii State Board of Education, replaced three of the five assistant superintendents who oversee all the school district’s operations.

Assistant Superintendent of School Facilities and Support Services Randy Moore and Assistant Superintendent of Information Technology Services David Wu were the only two to hang onto their positions. It’s worth noting that Moore has voluntarily maintained the salary he earned as a teacher, and as a result earns about half of what the other four assistant superintendents earn — $56,010, compared with $109,250.

Things were more stable at the complex area level, where only two complex area superintendents out of 15 were replaced.

  • Lena Tran contributed to this story by analyzing the data provided by the Department of Education.

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Hawaii Ed Department Prepares for Federal Race to the Top Visit https://www.civilbeat.org/2012/03/15106-hawaii-ed-department-prepares-for-federal-race-to-the-top-visit/ Wed, 07 Mar 2012 02:49:54 +0000 State has accomplished 85 percent of its 400 grant tasks, says strategic reform chief.

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The Hawaii Department of Education will learn whether it gets to keep its $75 million Race to the Top grant when federal officials visit later this month.

The visit is scheduled for March 27-30. Meanwhile, department leaders are gathering their arsenal of evidence to show they are making progress on the grant promises. In December, they got scolded and the state’s grant was put on “high-risk” status for failure to to make significant progress in the first year of the four-year grant.

As of Jan. 31, the department had accomplished “over 85 percent” of its 400 or so “deliverables and subtasks,” Assistant Superintendent of Strategic Reform Stephen Schatz told the Board of Education in a Race to the Top update Tuesday.

Department of Education spokeswoman Sandy Goya said the 400 deliverables Schatz mentioned probably referred to small itemized to-do items, which together help accomplish bigger tasks like teacher evaluations.

The department has been much more communicative about its Race to the Top projects since the December rebuke, providing regular updates to the Board of Education and the Legislature, as well as more thorough coverage of its various projects via a website dedicated to Hawaii’s education reform efforts.

Some of Hawaii’s most significant accomplishments thus far, Schatz told board members Tuesday, include:

  • Reorganizing the state-level Department of Education offices to streamline responsibilities.

  • Beginning to implement Common Core curriculum standards, which were developed to standardize expectations among the nation’s 50 states, D.C. and its territories.

  • Rolling out a statewide longitudinal data system that helps teachers and principals track student progress.

  • Beginning to hold meetings to develop a new teacher evaluation system, and laying the legal groundwork to implement it when it’s ready.

  • Reaching an agreement with teachers to extend school time in the state’s Zones of School Innovation, two geographic areas in which the schools are piloting some of the bolder education reforms.

Schatz sounded most excited about the extended learning time agreement with teachers, the fact that school leaders are actually using the “longitudinal data system,” and that lots of schools are volunteering to pilot teacher evaluations next year.

“Getting this agreement was a real big milestone in terms of accomplishing our ‘Race’ initiatives,” he said.

He explained that even though teachers in the zones have already been working longer hours and participating in extra professional development days, “Now we’re doing it in a more systematic and mandatory way for our kids and teachers.”

He also told board members that the longitudinal data system — designed to basically store all information about a student — was a gamble for the state that seems to be paying off.

“As we look at the data, we’re noting that principals and teacher leaders are using this system pretty consistently,” he said. “We’re excited, because this is one of those systems where, when you design it, you’re not sure if it’s going to get used or not. It’s good to know that it’s being used to make informed decisions about what’s best for students.”

Board of Education member Col. William Morrison, the military liaison, asked Schatz what the top three things that keep him up at night are with regards to Race to the Top. Schatz replied that he worries most about implementing the education reforms well and with fidelity to the goals.

“When we were writing the grant, I think the fear was that we wouldn’t become a Race to the Top winner,” he said. “And then once we got it, it became about getting the things done — whether we’ll be able to make these reforms happen and sustain them. This is about making a difference and impact on our kids.

“What concerns me is not just getting a check on a box in terms of project, but the quality of the implementation. If we’re not implementing with quality, we’re not making an impact on our teachers and students.”

Board Chairman Don Horner thanked Schatz for his dedication to the reforms, and re-emphasized the state’s dedication to the Race to the Top reforms, regardless of whether Hawaii is able to keep the $75 million grant.

“Sometimes, to me, the term ‘Race to the Top’ is unfortunate, because it’s a federal government program,” Horner said. “As you know, this is a lot more than a federal government program. I think where we’re heading is a big part of our strategic plan. This is something we told the federal government we were going to do. We gave it to them and not the other way around, and they gave us their blessing and said they would help us fund it.

“I applaud the attitude that these reforms aren’t dependent on the federal government’s blessing, which we covet, but I appreciate what you’re saying about getting this done right instead of fast.”

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Hawaii Education Blog — Accountability and Achievement — Mar. 5-11 https://www.civilbeat.org/2012/03/15074-hawaii-education-blog-accountability-and-achievement/ Sat, 03 Mar 2012 03:34:24 +0000 The place to learn about how we’re teaching our students.

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Welcome to Civil Beat’s live blog about Hawaii education, the place to learn about how we’re teaching our students.

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Hawaii Education Blog — Accountability and Achievement

To read a complete archive of this blog, click here.

Change Begins With A Question.™ What questions about Hawaii education do you have for our team? Share them below.

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Taken for a Ride: State Learns A Lesson About Running School Buses https://www.civilbeat.org/2012/03/15068-taken-for-a-ride-state-learns-a-lesson-about-running-school-buses/ Sat, 03 Mar 2012 01:49:22 +0000 Hawaii Department of Education took over 12 Big Island routes in 2005.

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The Hawaii Department of Education won’t be taking over statewide school bus operations anytime soon, based on what officials have learned from an emergency takeover of 12 school bus routes in Kailua-Kona seven years ago.

The state has been looking for ways to curb skyrocketing costs stemming from a lack of competition among contractors that Civil Beat has documented in its Taken for a Ride series. So far, the ideas have ranged from raising fares and consolidating routes to shortening the school week or eliminating services altogether. But bringing services in house is not going to be the solution, Student Transportation Services Manager James Kauhi told Civil Beat.

The department outsources services for its 800 or so school bus routes, but in 2005 was unable to secure an agreement with a service provider for 12 routes on the Big Island. Faced with the possibility of having no school bus services at all for students in that area, then-Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto and then-Student Transportation Services Manager Blanche Fountain decided that the department would engage in its own operations, Kauhi said.

The department leased some vehicles, created half-time bus driver positions in the Office of Human Resources and recruited some drivers. The department is still in charge of those routes today, but is about to get out from under them. Last year, the district solicited bids on a six-year contract to run those routes starting this fall, and hopes to finalize contracts soon.

What state officials have learned is that running their own school bus operations requires a level of capital outlay, personnel and expertise that the department doesn’t have, said Kauhi, who has managed the department’s Student Transportation Services Branch for the last two years.

What they haven’t learned is exactly how the cost of running school buses in-house compares with the cost of contracting them out. That’s because officials have not been effective tracking expenses in the Kailua-Kona operation.

Bus Driver Shortage

Bus company operators say finding and keeping qualified school bus drivers is one of the most significant and ongoing problems they face.

The Department of Education found the same situation, which Kauhi said is a nationwide challenge.

“The school bus driver is a highly desired commodity, yet it’s very difficult to find people who are willing to dedicate their energy and time to a half-time position,” Kauhi explained. “Once they obtain commercial drivers licenses, they look for full-time employment to get full return on their credentials. School bus drivers don’t get that because they work only four or five hours a day. It is and continues to be an issue.”

The Department of Education hoped to hire between 12 and 14 drivers, but never got anywhere close to that number.

“It was insurmountable, and therefore we were never able to provide high-quality service to the schools,” Kauhi said. “One of the other lessons the DOE learned is that it cannot assume that bus drivers will be flocking to join the DOE simply because it’s a public service position.”

Managing from Afar

The state also learned that it requires careful planning and dedicated expertise to effectively run a school bus operation.

“I think one of the most important lessons that was learned from this effort is that it is virtually impossible to manage a live school bus operation remotely, from a distance,” Kauhi said. “In order to function as a school bus operation, you absolutely have to have a full-time manager on site to deal with driver attendance, training, someone who’s on top of vehicle maintenance and dealing with vendors to repair and maintain them. It is literally a full-time function, and the absence of having an individual to handle just that made it very difficult.”

He said that the department started with a team of employees to handle those operations, but subsequently lost the team and tried to manage from Honolulu.

Neither the management team or the administrators in Honolulu tried to identify the costs, which means it is now virtually impossible to accurately report the expense for the Department of Education to operate its own vehicles.

That’s just as well, Kauhi said, because running the Hilo routes was never intended to be a pilot project. It was an emergency move, and the department always planned to get out of the school bus service as soon as possible.

“It’s important that we understand that the limited services DOE provided in Kailua-Kona for the last six and a half years was entirely an effort to provide busing services to Kailua-Kona residents without interruption,” he explained. “We never engaged in this as an evaluation process of whether we could do it ourselves.”

Lawmakers pushing for solutions to the rising costs had asked the district about the cot of operating routes itself. But they know doing so would be more expensive in the short term than maintaining existing contracts, and riskier in the long term.

“We’ve encouraged them to explore alternatives, among those to look at what it would cost to bring school bus service in-house,” said Senate Ways and Means Chairman David Ige. “They’ve done some work on it, it’s not as far as we would like it, but the reality is we don’t have a whole lot of money.”

Still, Kauhi has tried to get a handle on the expenses by first meeting with Oahu Transit Services to learn what kind of formula the company uses to calculate per-hour and per-bus costs. The formulas are complicated and would require information that the former transportation services managers didn’t collect or keep, he said.

Senate Education Chairwoman Jill Tokuda said she never viewed a takeover of operations as a high-priority option.

“I did want them to consider options that are slightly different, like owning the vehicle leases but contracting out the services,” she said. ” For myself, I felt that was much more practical and realistic than having our own bus shop, so if they do their due diligence on that and it doesn’t particularly pan out, that’s fine.”

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Taken for a Ride: State Launches Audit of Student Transportation Program https://www.civilbeat.org/2012/03/15067-taken-for-a-ride-state-launches-audit-of-student-transportation-program/ Fri, 02 Mar 2012 22:59:57 +0000 Audit is another investigation into rising school bus costs.

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The State Auditor is conducting an audit of the state’s student transportation program, largely because of media coverage of runaway school bus costs.

State Auditor Marion Higa initiated the audit in January, auditor Rachel Hibbard said. The office has not settled on its specific objective and scope yet.

“There’s been, as you are aware, a spate of media attention on this issue recently, most of it yours,” she said.

Since October, Civil Beat has been examining skyrocketing school bus costs in its series, Taken for a Ride. The stories document how a sudden fall off in competition among bus contractors contributed to transportation costs doubling over five years.

Higa said in November that the strangely coincidental rising costs and absence of competition wouldn’t have shown up in the annual financial audits her office performs on the Hawaii Department of Education.

“The things that you’re asking about would have to be part of a management and performance audit,” she said then, explaining that such an audit had not been performed on the entire department since 1973.

While doing a comprehensive audit of the $2.5 billion Department of Education would take significant resources and time, Higa said she has the authority to conduct management audits of any offices or programs within the department at her own discretion.

“That might be something to think about,” she told us in November.

Student Transportation Services Director James Kauhi told Civil Beat that he has been dealing with numerous investigations that have started in the last few months. The auditor’s is just the latest.

“Never mind the fact that we’re having to answer everybody else’s questions on top of all of this,” he said.

Kauhi’s program has already been under scrutiny by lawmakers who last year threatened to zero out regular school bus funding unless district officials could provide a satisfactory explanation and a plan for lowering student transportation costs. It also caught the attention of the FBI, who last year began investigating possible collusion in setting prices.

Senate Ways and Means Chairman David Ige, who last year spearheaded the push for answers about school bus costs, said the Legislature has been trying to get a handle on this issue for a long time but did not officially request the audit.

The Hawaii State Board of Education is also discussing whether to launch its own investigation of the school bus costs via a special committee — while simultaneously performing an internal audit of the department’s procurement and contracting process.

Hibbard said she cannot predict when the audit will be completed, but will let us know after the office issues its audit objective letter.

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Learning Time in Hawaii: Quality Over Quantity https://www.civilbeat.org/2012/03/15061-learning-time-in-hawaii-quality-over-quantity/ Fri, 02 Mar 2012 02:18:24 +0000 Reports say more instructional time doesn't help students succeed.

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The Hawaii Department of Education estimates that ramping up instructional time in public schools as required by a new law passed last year will cost $206 million over the next seven years.

But the Legislature hopes to avoid that cost and is now discussing its third instructional time proposal in as many years — this one to develop four common bell schedules for each school level (elementary, middle and high). All in pursuit of greater and more equal learning time for students across the state.

Is it worth it? The few existing national reports on instructional time suggest that focusing on quantity misses the point.

The National Center on Time and Learning, which devotes its resources almost exclusively to expanding instructional time and using it more effectively, cites four of the most significant publications on the subject. Three of them deal with how learning time is used, rather than how much of it is allocated. The fourth, which addresses quantity, dismisses it as an insignificant factor in achieving student outcomes.

“The body of research evidence suggests that before simply adding more of it, schools and districts should, instead, make better use of existing time,” states a WestEd report published 14 years ago. “Thus, as many studies point out, unless you can somehow ensure that any added school time would be devoted to instruction, with students engaged in well-designed and appropriate learning activities, providing more time per se cannot be expected to have a major effect on student achievement.”

More recently, the Education Resarch Association echos that conclusion in an article about learning time fundamentals.

“It is not just the amount of time spent that determines students’ degrees of learning, but also how engaged students are during that time and the extent to which they are engaged in tasks relevant to curriculum expectations and assessments,” the 2007 article states. “Researchers generally distinguish sharply between Allocated Time — the time on the school calendar for a given content area — and Academic Learning Time — the amount of time students are working on rigorous tasks at the appropriate level of difficulty for them.”

Senate Education Chairwoman Jill Tokuda, who sponsored the Senate bill for standardized bell schedules, acknowledges that quality is at least as important as quantity, and that even defining “instructional time” is a necessary step before determining how much of it students should have.

She said it is still a big problem, though, that students in Hawaii are receiving such disparate amounts of instructional time right now. Some high school and middle school students are receiving six hours fewer of instructional time than their peers, according to a report the Department of Education prepared on how far each school has to go in order to meet the new requirements.

“We’re just trying to bring some standards to the bell schedule at the different school levels,” Tokuda said. “Because you’re seeing such a huge range, it’s hard to get a base standard in place when you have literally hundreds of bell schedules.”

The law passed last year would be expensive to implement, and its possible replacement holds little promise of improving student achievement, says a student at Moanalua High School.

“I agree that increasing a mere hour will not result in better test scores, grades, etc,” wrote Tabatha Donley in an email to Civil Beat. “Quality over quantity. We should be focusing more on teacher quality and professional development, as opposed to enforcing a statewide bell schedule!”

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Hawaii Grad Students Fight for Collective Bargaining Rights https://www.civilbeat.org/2012/03/15041-hawaii-graduate-assistants-fight-for-collective-bargaining-rights/ Thu, 01 Mar 2012 00:36:12 +0000 Graduate assistants are state employees, but pay is same as 2004 while workload has increased.

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While one group of Hawaii state employees fights to keep its collective bargaining rights intact, another group is fighting to get any bargaining rights at all.

Graduate assistants at the University of Hawaii, although state employees, are also students and therefore banned by state statute from joining a collective bargaining unit.

That’s something state Rep. Chris Lee and a host of grad students hope to change, via House Bill 2859, which would give graduate student workers the right to unionize. The House labor and higher education committees approved the bill and recommended it for passage, but the Finance Committee needs to hold a hearing on it by Friday night in order for it to make the legislative crossover deadline. A hearing has not been scheduled yet.

There are an estimated 1,300 graduate assistants at UH Manoa, according to the bill, who haven’t received a pay raise since 2004 despite increased teaching loads.

Jessica Austin, a graduate assistant at UH Manoa, begged lawmakers in testimony to end what she called “the exploitation of our labor.”

“It is not a myth that graduate students work long hours for little pay, living off of little and paying off debt for high tuition costs,” she wrote. “Graduate students are highly skilled workers who are giving back to the state and giving back to the community. Does our labor not count for as much as other state employees?”

Lee told Civil Beat he has known a number of graduate students who are state employees in various capacities, many of whom have experienced problems at UH that went unresolved because of the students’ inability to organize.

Budget shortfalls have only exacerbated the problem, he said, because class sizes went up, increasing workloads for the graduate assistants by nearly double. At the same time, the budget crunch resulted in elimination of Office of the Ombudsman, which was the only dependable avenue students had to get help with their grievances.

“At a time when budgets are so tight, it seems that you tend to unfairly squeeze this particular target group because they are transient and have a hard time getting their voices heard,” he explained. “It is such a largely transient population, and it’s really hard to maintain proper benefits and pay and so forth when the people who are affected tend to move on very quickly.”

One student, Kathleen Lindsey, testified that she was hired only after agreeing to teach two classes per semester despite a graduate work policy requiring only one, and was overloaded with work as a result. Classmates in similar situations dropped out, she said, because they couldn’t handle the workload.

But UH Provost Linda Johnsrud said it’s not that simple.

“Graduate assistants are unlike any other employees,” she wrote in testimony to the House labor committee. “They are students first, and employees second. Graduate assistants are student learners. They are at the university to learn as much about their fields of study as their time and talents will allow. A graduate assistantship is not a career or profession, but most similar to an on-the-job training or apprenticeship program.”

Furthermore, she testified, graduate assistants already receive hefty benefits for their work in the form of tuition waivers, and have also been protected from the same salary cuts other faculty members experienced in recent years.

“Even in the current fiscal climate, we have not precluded increase wages for graduate assistants,” she wrote, while other employees dealt with salary cuts — albeit with back pay for the years their salaries were reduced.

The cost implications of allowing graduate assistants to unionize could be huge for the state, she said. Under the current proposal, hours, conditions of employment and fringe benefits would all be subject to collective bargaining — in addition to the tuition waiver graduate assistants already receive, which can range from $458 to $725 per credit hour for residents and $1,116 to $1,381 per credit hour for non-residents.

Graduate students aren’t the only ones concerned about their working conditions, though. Lee’s measure also has the support of numerous individual faculty members and the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, among others.

History professor Ned Bertz testified that access to benefits like adequate wages and health care would make grad assistants more productive and increase the university’s efficiency, which is “crucial as an economic engine of our state.”

“As a student myself at an institution which had a graduate student union, I testify that this organization increased productivity and collegiality,” he wrote. “The UH works because graduate student workers do. They deserve the same rights as all workers.”

Lee says Hawaii’s long tradition of recognizing and respecting the role collective bargaining can play in improving work conditions should work in this bill’s favor.

“Following in the lines of the constitution, which empowers us to collective bargaining, a lot of people support this idea, and at least having a conversation about it,” he said.

The bill names at least 28 universities that already “enjoy positive working relationships with graduate student unions that can advocate for graduate student workers.”

“This is the first step that needs to be taken, removing the statutory block on collective bargaining for graduate student employees,” said Lee. “It’s a first step and a necessary step. Without that, the administration at UH has the power, rightly or not, to determine the state of working conditions for graduate students.”

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Bell Schedules Resonate With Hawaii Lawmakers https://www.civilbeat.org/2012/02/15020-bell-schedules-resonate-with-hawaii-lawmakers/ Tue, 28 Feb 2012 02:17:41 +0000 Some students get as much as six hours more instructional time a week than others.

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Some middle and high schoolers in Hawaii are getting up to six hours less of class time per week than their peers, thanks to the state’s historic lack of a minimum instructional time rule.

Lawmakers have tried to deal with the disparity in the past by setting minimum requirements, but a measure this session might bring about more equity for students across the state by standardizing bell schedules.

The state has almost as many bell schedules as it does public schools. And none of the state’s middle, intermediate and high schools right now meet the mark for a 1,650-minute minimum that is scheduled to take effect in 2014, according to a report the Hawaii Department of Education gave to the Legislature this session.

Instructional time in the state’s high schools ranges from 1,255 to 1,632 minutes per week — a difference of six hours. The variance is equally great in intermediate schools, and in middle schools the difference was as great as four hours.

Hawaii’s is not the only school district where the length of the school day varies, but the discrepancies are greater than in other districts Civil Beat surveyed, because it is one of the few that until recently had no requirements regarding how much instructional time students should receive.

Houston Independent School District, for instance, has a minimum school day length of seven hours based on Texas law, and explains in its secondary school guidelines that the exact length of the day varies from school to school. Houston also rejected a plan last year to streamline the district’s 19 different bell schedules in its schools down to four.

Hawaii’s debate over instructional time began two years ago after Furlough Fridays left parents frustrated that their children had lost 17 days of school in one year. They successfully lobbied for two new laws: One requiring 180 school days, and the other establishing a minimum number of minutes that students must receive instruction during the school week. Implementation of the instructional time law was put on a slower timeline last year when the Department of Education said enforcing it would be expensive and difficult.

Changing the length of the day at any given school is also subject to two-thirds approval vote by the teachers union members at that school. After the instructional time law was passed, principals were finding it difficult to get proposed bell schedule changes approved. Teachers at some schools turned down schedule changes even when doing so jeopardized some students’ ability to graduate on time, school community council members have told the Legislature this session, because a six-credit-per-year schedule didn’t allow them to earn a 25th credit that the Board of Education had added onto their requirements.

One attempt to get around red tape and costly implementation is Senate Bill 2535, which aims to do away with the new law and replace it with standardized bell schedules. The district would be required to develop a menu of four bell schedules for each level of school (e.g. elementary, middle and high school). The proposal would minimize the scheduling stress on principals trying to keep up with changing curriculum requirements and would also narrow the gaps between how much instruction time different schools’ students get each week.

“The the bell schedule thing is important from a practical sense, because you’re seeing such a huge range of school day lengths, and it’s hard to get a base standard in place when you have literally hundreds of bell schedules,” said Senate Education Chairwoman Jill Tokuda, who sponsored the bill.

It also has support from key education groups who say common — or at least similar — bell schedules would allow students from different schools to participate in more learning activities together, like virtual classes or after-school programs.

“This alignment in bell schedule would create opportunities for learning that are currently impossible with the many different schedules,” wrote Cheri Nakamura, director of the HEE Coalition, in testimony to the state Senate about the bill.

It would also put Hawaii among a growing group of districts standardizing bell schedules to increase efficiency and save money.

The Hillsborough County Public Schools district in Tampa, Fla. has standardized instructional day schedules for each school level (elementary, middle and high school) in order to maximize school bus efficiency, said External Communications Manager Linda Cobbe.

“Our bell schedule is based on bus schedules because most drivers do a high school run, followed by an elementary run, then middle school,” she explained in an email.

While the start and end times may differ for that reason, the length of the school day is consistent at each school level, with only a few exceptions out of the district’s nearly 230 schools.

Seattle Public Schools implemented bell schedules in 2009 for similar reasons, and the Albuquerque Public Schools district is moving in that direction as well.

But not all who would be affected by the change in Hawaii support it. A minimum instructional time should be enough, reason some teachers, who say that mandating common schedules for Hawaii’s 255 schools would be micro-management.

“I don’t want to be locked into ‘standardized’ when it comes to a bell schedule,” wrote teacher Colleen Pasco on the Hawaii State Teachers Association‘s Facebook wall. “Their rationale is related to instructional minutes. We already have requirements for the number of instructional minutes we must have during a week. Anyone who submits a bell schedule to the DOE for approval must meet those minutes requirements. Why do they need to cram a ‘one-size-fits-all’ down our throats?”

The bill in its current form would allow schools to seek a waiver from any of the four schedule options.

Although the proposal has practical benefits, Tokuda also considers it an opportunity to have a philosophical discussion about what constitutes “instructional time.” It’s time for Hawaii to identify where learning takes place and how students learn, especially at the secondary level, she said.

“I think it’s one of those issues you can ask 20 people in a room and you’ll get 20 different answers,” she explained. “For some, it’s sitting in the classroom, but for others, teachable moments take place in other places. This bill forces you to really have that philosophical discussion about where learning takes place and then increase student access to those opportunities.”

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