Con Am illuminated school funding crisis

Gov, schools superintendent call for more school resources, better pay

Even though the state Supreme Court blocked voters from deciding on the constitutional amendment to better fund our schools, the HSTA’s Con Am campaign helped focus attention on chronic public school underfunding, low teacher pay and the negative consequences those problems have on students.

“The constitutional amendment started a great conversation about how do we improve public schools in Hawaii,” said HSTA President Corey Rosenlee at a news conference Monday. “While HSTA is disappointed in the Supreme Court decision, we must continue this conversation, and the conversation must lead to results. The stakes are too high.”

The HSTA organized the Oct. 22 news conference at McKinley High on Oahu that was attended by Gov. David Ige, Board of Education Chair Catherine Payne, State Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, State Sen. Michelle Kidani, community education activists, supporters and public school teachers.

Watch video highlights of the news conference with the governor, schools superintendent, BOE chair and others.

“We have this commitment to improve funding for our education. How we do that has to be a conversation we have with the governor, with legislators, with the DOE and the BOE,” Rosenlee told reporters at the news conference. “At this moment, we do not have any specific plans on what we’re going to go forward with. And that all depends on where the conversation takes us.”

After the Supreme Court ruling on Oct. 19, the HSTA was able to quickly stop digital and TV advertising in favor of the Con Am, saving a significant amount of money for other efforts in the future. The opposition, bankrolled by luxury developers, real estate interests and well-heeled business people, had already outspent us by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, HSTA could not compete with that kind of money, and because of the high cost of advertising, we could not start our television commercials until the final weeks of the campaign, when absentee ballots were sent out.

Ige, who supported the Con Am and said he’d veto any proposal that would have raised the cost of living for average folks, told reporters: “We’re committed to continue to fight for more resources for our schools. We know that there are many needs that go unfunded. We encourage everyone to take responsibility and engage their schools in their communities to help us create the public school system that our children deserve.”

Ige said he’s looking at finding state lands to generate revenue to help schools.

“I’m committed to finding other state lands, if there are opportunities for us to seek public-private partnerships to generate revenue, we will pursue it. So we will continue to look at other ways that we can come up with the resources to meet the needs of the superintendent and the board,” Ige said. “We will seek the revenues that we can within the laws and the constitution that we have.”

Kidani, the state senator representing Mililani Town, chairs the Senate Education Committee.

“As legislators, we must continue to build an educational system that creates opportunities for our keiki, and also our businesses, by providing a well-educated workforce of public school graduates,” Kidani said. “We see classrooms with broken and old equipment, schools with bathrooms that don’t work, students without constructive after-school activities, particularly in our rural areas and the neighbor islands. And we see our teachers working second and third jobs. This is unacceptable.”

Payne became Board of Education chair earlier this year. She is a longtime public school principal and former chair of Hawaii’s Charter School Commission, who said she too, is committed to increasing school funding.

“We can really express our commitment to continuing the effort to make sure that there are funds to keep and find great teachers for our classrooms. We must adjust that salary schedule so that will happen. We also need to do many more things to adjust other working conditions that our teachers are faced with,” Payne said.

Kishimoto, the schools superintendent, also called for better teacher pay.

“It is important to have a highly prepared, certified, well-paid teacher in every single one of my classrooms,” Kishimoto said. “We do need to ensure that we can support our education system; that we can attract and retain the best teachers here in the state of Hawaii. That’s my absolute commitment. And so the conversation just got started.”

“Within the next eight months, we are going to have a third party do a competitive salary compensation study that adjusts for the cost of living here in Hawaii. And so I look forward to having that in my hands when we can use that as another talking point,” Kishimoto added.

A reporter asked Kishimoto about whether the DOE bureaucracy could shift more resources to the classroom, echoing a complaint by critics that simply cutting back on DOE’s bureaucracy would somehow solve our schools’ funding crisis.

“That is an ongoing myth,” Kishimoto responded. “Ninety-three percent of our state funds are in schools, in the classrooms, either directly in the hands of principals or in shared services like busing and food. And so we’re very very proud of that real dedication to putting funds in the hands of our principals for decision making. And so as we move forward, we really need to look at how we’re going to identify additional funds to address the competitive pay that we have.”

Nearly 80 percent of the DOE’s $2 billion budget is in the hands of principals, and roughly 13 percent to shared services such as meals and busing, Kishimoto said. Only seven percent of the budget is spent at the complex and state levels, she added.

“Our money is going towards innovation in the classrooms. Our goal really is to have an empowered school model where decisions are driven from the school, up to the state really being a supporter of the work that we have at the school level,” said Kishimoto.

The governor, who has been big proponent of tax modernization, said the state is about to roll out improvements to the state’s tax system dealing with personal income tax. 

“At that point, we will have more than $4.5 billion generated off our new tax system. And I’ve always believed that that new tax system will give us better data analytics that will generate additional revenues, which could be applied to our public school system,” Ige said.

“HSTA and the teachers are committed that this is a problem we must solve and we can no longer ignore this. This has to be done now. So we assure that every child has the schools that they deserve,” Rosenlee said.

Read this fascinating column from Civil Beat about how the Con Am language morphed from what HSTA originally fought for (clear, specific language targeting second homes worth more than $1million) into a vague proposal that opponents were able to use to scare voters.

Author: Keoki Kerr