Thursday, December 17, 2020

Board of Education comes out strongly against school furloughs

‘The public needs to know the board doesn’t believe in these furloughs,’ members say

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Members of the Hawaii State Board of Education Thursday said they oppose school employee furloughs, and several went so far as to ask the governor to rescind the furloughs since members of Congress are finalizing a pandemic aid package that contains more than $54 billion for public schools.

Their statements came after public testimony by hundreds of educators, including Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee, against furloughs that the Hawaii State Department of Education announced Monday would begin Jan. 4.

“The Hawaii State Teachers Association requests that the Board of Education stand with our keiki and write a letter urging Gov. David Ige to prevent these destructive furloughs and protect public education funding,” Rosenlee asked of board members.

After hearing more than an hour of oral testimony from concerned educators and community members, BOE member Bruce Voss said, “By all accounts, it appears very, very likely that Congress will include a large amount of money for education spending in the upcoming stimulus bill that is going to be passed this weekend. Given that, we need to defuse the situation and reduce this anxiety among our teachers, staff, and parents. I respectfully, but strongly, urge the governor to immediately rescind this furlough directive to the Department of Education so the department and the board rep can resume mid-term bargaining with the unions to see how this additional federal money could potentially minimize or eliminate furloughs or layoffs and preserve instructional days for our students.”

Kenneth Uemura, the BOE vice chair, agreed, saying the board should send a letter “to the governor expressing our disappointment in how this thing was done, and he should definitely rescind the furlough directive. I am in total support of this, because the public needs to know that the board is not in support of the furloughs. The board had no input in this.”

An emotional Shanty Asher, another BOE member, told her colleagues, “I’m really fearful that next year we’re going to have a lot of kids that are actually going to lose credits and will fall behind and not graduate. I really, really hope this furlough doesn’t go through because our kids have gone through so much and the teachers have stuck through with them all those times, and now this?

“I really, really hope that there is a prioritization on education, because after everything that’s happened, it’s our children that will be impacted by these decisions, and they count on all of us to make those decisions for them,” Asher said.

BOE member Kili Namauu lamented, “I think, unfortunately, the damage is done already with many of our teachers. If you can see the testimony from people, from the teachers, this is hard times for them.”

“Before the pandemic, the teachers have been struggling. We have asked enormous things from them: to pivot, to create distance learning. We’ve had a lot of meetings since the middle of summer addressing a lot of their concerns on safety, concerns on PPE, concerns on instructional time, for them to learn distance learning. And this is another thing that we’ve got to just throw at them? ‘Oh, by the way, there’s furloughs here now,’” Namauu said.

“The Department of Education is our future. We're talking about our children here, and what happens to these children next year, or even in the upcoming year?” Namauu continued. “The teachers are done. They're looking for jobs elsewhere. They're looking to move back to the mainland. They're figuring out that we have not given them the hoihi, the respect, that we should all give them. How are we going to replace these high-quality teachers? How is that going to happen? It's not.

“We need to look at education differently in this state, and I'm just going to keep repeating this probably at every board meeting,” Namauu said. “The public and our legislators, everyone needs to take ownership of this. This isn't something that we can just band-aid with furloughs here and there. That's not going to do it. We have to invest in our kids. We have to invest in public education. We have to do it, and we have to take — I don't know, does it mean increasing taxes? Maybe that's what we have to do. I'm willing to do it. It’s a hardship on all of us, but we have to start thinking about providing funding for the department in a different way. I really hope that our legislators are hearing this, and I really hope that they're thinking about things differently, about how we can move forward, and how we can make public education a priority. Because what we spend on our kids now and invest in them now will save us millions and billions of dollars in the future, because we will have a thriving economy from these students.”

Educators plead for a stop to furloughs

Sarah Tochiki, the band director at Chiefess Kamakahalei Middle School on Kauai, told the board “furloughs are really the exploitation of the goodwill of educators to do best for their students.

“Even if furlough days for educators are on non-instructional days, students will still lose out. That time is to make sure students have the best experience when they are in the classroom,” Tochiki said.

“By calling it a furlough day, the state is creating smoke and mirrors of a reduction of work therefore a reduction in pay. The underlying message, however, is we want you to do more work for free from home, which is ironic since we still have some educators who were denied the request to work from home due to underlying health conditions,” added Tochiki.

Maui High math teacher Jodi Kunimitsu told board members that she and her husband are both HIDOE teachers.

“This is the second time in a little over a decade that we are both being furloughed by the state. For me, this is not only about money, though our household income would suffer two-fold. This is about respect for our profession and for the people you always expect to ‘save the children,’” Kunimitsu said.

“Many highly qualified teachers are already leaving because they’re either tired of being treated like this or they just can’t afford to stay in Hawaii. Do you see a long line of applicants waiting to take their place? I don’t,” she said.

“The public education system is on a ventilator and we are the exhausted, overworked staff trying desperately to keep it alive. Stop killing it and stop making excuses. It’s time to take a stand by saying no to budget cuts and furloughs. We’ve suffered enough. Our students have suffered enough,” Kunimitsu concluded.

Lisa Morrison, the parent of a child at Paia Elementary as well as a teacher at Maui Waena Intermediate School, told members that because of budget cuts, her student activities coordinator position will be eliminated next school year.

“I am that unicorn teacher who’s licensed in English and math, so I am employable even in the deepest of recessions. I feel sorry for the smart, young, capable teacher I will bump and who will have to leave Hawaii because we can’t afford her,” Morrison said.

“You don’t have a recruitment problem, you have a retention pandemic. I have watched many leave, not because they want to, but because you leave them no choice. And that is spirit-breaking. These are people who may never come back to teaching,” she added.

Vinny Byju, a first-year social studies teacher at Aiea High School, pointed out that while Hawaii ranks dead last in teacher pay when adjusted for cost of living, “it does not begin to tell the least bit of the story. Those studies use the average teacher salary, not the minimum amount for emergency hires or first-year teachers. I have trouble making rent. It is only for so many days in a row that you can eat ramen over and over again before you begin to question your life decisions.

“But beyond the financial aspect of the issue, I feel a deep disrespect and hypocrisy to the situation that it is confronting,” Byju continued. “It is clear to me that Hawaii cares about their keiki and educators, but they don’t put their money where their mouth is. So many times I have been told ‘Thank you for doing what you do,’ and ‘Thank you for working so hard.’ But after a point, this not only just becomes empty rhetoric, but also becomes deeply insulting when the actual pay or decisions of our government does not match this. That is the position I am in now.”

Logan Okita, HSTA’s secretary-treasurer, a member of the HSTA Negotiations Team, and a first-grade teacher at Nimitz Elementary, told the BOE that HIDOE officials gave the HSTA at an informational meeting Nov. 5 “a potential implementation plan with dates for the furloughs by the Department of Education representatives. After sharing those initial, conceptual plans, the DOE never notified HSTA of the final specific dates before our members found out via email Monday night.

“Why did the Department wait over a month to release the plan to its employees? Why did they release the plan after 9 p.m. on the Monday before the end of the quarter?” Okita asked.

“As a classroom teacher, I am frustrated that just days before the end of the semester my important and necessary Jan. 4 workday has been taken away. What am I supposed to do on Jan. 5? Can I tell my students to read a book and do some iReady lessons while I finish planning the lessons and do their second-quarter grades? Oh wait. Those iPads will probably need to be charged for a few hours because they’ll die over the two-week break,” Okita said.

“I have had to pivot, adjust, and walk blindfolded for most of the school year, but now that I have finally found a sense of normalcy again, you’re pulling the rug out from under me? Please consider how furloughs will impact your educators who are burning the candle from both ends and the students who are relying on us for a sense of stability,” Okita told BOE members.

McKinley High Registrar Osa Tui Jr., HSTA’s vice president, asked the board numerous questions on behalf of his fellow members and the students they serve:

  • The superintendent intends to violate contracts on Jan. 4 and Feb.12 with further dates projected. What authority does the superintendent have and does the BOE have a say?
  • Skeptical lawmakers believe this contract violation won’t hold up in court.  This will become a problem when it gets struck down. Are there contingencies being developed?
  • On Nov. 5, the department shared a “concept” (but not a proposal) of their furlough plan with HSTA.  Was it shared with you before being emailed to all DOE employees on Monday night?
  • Is it okay that the superintendent has circumvented HSTA, HGEA, and UPW and engaged in direct dealing with employees?
  • What pay cut should employees expect? The only number out there is 9.2%.
  • 12-month teachers work two months or 20% more than 10-month employees. Why are they expected to take 67% more furlough days?
  • If different amounts of furlough are okay, shouldn’t the leadership team take 12 days through June like other departments instead of 10?
  • In June, 12-month teachers have three days out of 11 in a single pay period as furlough. Are pay cuts being spread out or are they being deducted only when furloughs happen?
  • If pay cuts don’t come out to 9.2% by June, should employees expect to see larger pay cuts next school year?
  • Has the superintendent informed the board that two weeks ago HSTA was given a proposal expecting teachers to provide instruction (without additional pay) for five of the following six days: one day during this Winter Break, the January 4 teacher workday, Teacher Institute Day, one day during Spring Break, the Good Friday holiday, and the June 1 teacher workday?
  • How does the department expect teachers to return on the days just mentioned without consulting other bargaining units?
  • The board is authorized to exercise control over the public school system.  How are those powers going to be exercised when it comes to our public charter school teachers who are in limbo right now?
  • Essential state workers will contribute nothing in terms of reduction in work or pay. Is education not one of the most fundamental and essential operations of a society?

Community groups oppose furloughs, saying 'our keiki deserve better'

Parent and community groups were among the people who submitted hundreds of pages of written testimony opposing school furloughs.

The Maunawili Elementary School Parent-Teacher-Organization said, “Our haumana depend on us to make decisions that will allow them to grow and become the decision-makers of tomorrow. We are failing them by taking away their educational time especially when they have already been asked to give up so much.

“Our teachers and students do not deserve the burden the state is imposing on them. We ask that you acknowledge, reassess, and reconsider the gravity of the educational furloughs. Our teachers and our keiki deserve better,” Maunawili’s PTO wrote.

The Special Education Advisory Council wrote that it “is very concerned that a combination of proposed special education teacher reductions plus fewer instructional days brought about by furloughs may jeopardize a free appropriate public education for many students with complex academic and behavioral needs.”

“These harsh measures will likely set back the recent progress made in special education teacher recruitment and retention and place far too many students with IEPs at risk of academic failure that will impact their future ability to lead successful lives,” said the testimony signed by Martha Guinan, SEAC’s chair. 

Dennis R. O’Brien, the principal at E.B. deSilva Elementary in Hilo, wrote, “On behalf of our school community, we wish to implore the BOE to reconsider imposing furloughs for this school year.”

Besides school staff being negatively impacted, O’Brien said the larger community will be adversely affected.

“As DOE employees absorb the weight of income lost due to the furloughs they will no doubt spend less money in our community--which exacerbates the gloomy economic forecast for our state. We suggest that the DOE reserve the enforcement of furloughs until later in this school year. Doing so would allow our staff an opportunity to weather the worst projected impacts of C-19 and be in a better position to take a financial loss given more time to plan accordingly,” O’Brien said.

BOE chair, superintendent call for reliable education funding stream 

BOE Chair Catherine Payne was a principal when Hawaii endured school and government furloughs more than a decade ago.

“I know support for the professionals who are working directly with students has a direct impact on student achievement. We have not done enough of this, but we were working toward that,” with shortage differentials and other targeted pay increases over the last year, Payne said.

After reading hundreds of pages of written testimony and hearing educators and others testify live, Payne said, “The despair that is evident in the testimony of teachers comes through, and my heart breaks at the personal stories they shared. And as this plays out, the losses from our workforce will impact our students, especially our most vulnerable students whose parents do not have the resources to supplement the losses of services that have been provided by schools. The poorest children will not have music lessons and other experiences in the arts or in athletics that parents pay for if they have the resources to do it. The schools have provided these things, and they are being cut now. The poorest children will suffer the most, and that is how it has always been.

“This is a much bigger conversation than educators talking to each other. This is a conversation that the community needs to have, because the larger community really needs to say whether they want to have an excellent public school system. And if they want to have it, are they willing to help pay for it?” Payne said.

Kishimoto thanked educators, board members, and the community for fighting for public education. “It is so important to have a unified voice, and I will certainly be accountable for my leadership, but I cannot do this alone,” she said. “This is a unified effort, and I do appreciate all of the voices, including our labor unions who are going to be speaking on behalf of their members.

“But the fact is at the end of the day, we need better funding for public education that's predictable and that is adequate, and we have not figured out that solution, which is why the state is in this situation again,” Kishimoto continued. “We all need to be all hands on the table to figure this out. I don't think there's an easy solution. But the fact is our kids are the ones that are going to pay for it, and our teachers and their incredible capacity, along with our principals and every staff member, are the ones that are going to lose out. And they really do deserve their pay. They deserve predictability, and they also deserve all the respect that I absolutely have for them, and I know that we all have for our staff, and deep, deep appreciation.”

Board member Dwight Takeno, however, expressed his displeasure and disappointment with the superintendent for developing a furlough plan without board input. “While I see that this is largely in part of being asked by the governor, the superintendent, through the testimonies we've heard and the evidence that was provided in the testimonies clearly show that this was her plan, and this was not shared with the board,” Takeno said. “So with that, everything that has occurred today, there's one person who should take full responsibility. Because again, we did not know anything, and we are being provided with information that is always after the fact and after we could even understand what the plan is or even provide input and our comment to it. So again, I hold the leader accountable for what we're dealing with today, and I expect a lot more and a lot better.”

Unions promise ‘necessary actions’ to stop illegal furloughs

Via written testimony, Hawaii Government Employees Association Executive Director Randy Perreira supported HSTA’s claim that unions were left in the dark. HGEA represents nearly 40,000 state and county employees, including public school administrators.

“The DOE never informed HGEA of its furlough plan and never made any attempt to negotiate the furlough plan with HGEA prior to announcing it to affected employees,” Perreira wrote. “To make matters worse, Superintendent Kishimoto lied in the memo she sent to all DOE employees announcing the furlough plan, stating that “The Department’s furlough implementation plans were shared (with the affected unions)... in a good faith effort to mitigate the impact on all employees.’

“That is a blatant lie,” Perreira wrote. “This testimony serves as notice to the Board of Education that the HGEA will take all necessary actions and seek all appropriate relief to address the DOE’s unilateral implementation of furloughs that were never negotiated with HGEA, and are in clear violation of existing collective bargaining agreements and laws.”

The HSTA also did not agree to furloughs, and we plan to take legal action in the near future to challenge this violation to our collective bargaining agreement. More details will be provided in Friday’s Member Matters email, so please make sure you are subscribed.

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Author: Keoki Kerr