Friday, March 13, 2020

Key House committees advance teacher compensation bill

Representatives received more than 600 pages of testimony from educators before unanimously approving the measure

Click here to watch this video on YouTube.

Two state House committees Friday voted unanimously to approve a measure that sets aside $37 million to raise veteran educators' salaries as well as those in key shortage areas next school year. After being approved by the committees on Labor & Public Employment and Lower & Higher Education, SB2488, SD2 next goes to the House Committee on Finance for consideration.

Campbell High science teacher Christine Russo told the joint hearing, “I have often considered leaving the state to teach elsewhere because if I do, I know my starting salary will be greater and I’ll also benefit from consistent salary increases aligned to my years of service. It’s difficult to continue teaching in Hawaii when I can’t reliably gauge what my salary will be 10 or 20 years down the line.

“It’s important to keep our most seasoned educators in the classroom so we can minimize vacancies and the subsequent replacement of experienced teachers by newer, less-experienced teachers,” Russo said, referring to the proposal to raise veteran teachers' pay to properly reflect their years of service. Educators who've been teaching for more than 10 years saw no step pay increases during the recession and their salaries have lagged over the years, so many of them are paid roughly the same amount as teachers many years their junior.

Increased hard-to-staff differentials of $8,000 for Waianae/Nanakuli complex schools on Oahu are enticing her to apply for a job there.

“I live in Ewa Beach and I do know that that commute will take time out of my day as well as I’ll have to pay the mileage back and forth, but with these differentials in place, I’ve decided to try to make the jump. I have not interviewed, however, I have applied for a school on the Leeward Coast,” Russo said.

“I have often thought about teaching on the Leeward Coast because I really care deeply about these students who have been chronically underserved,” she added, noting that close to one-third of the teachers there are new to the profession, teaching outside their specialty or emergency hires.

Teacher says only half of the special education teachers at her school are licensed and fully qualified

Amanda Lacar teaches students with special needs at Aliamanu Middle School. She told lawmakers she surveyed the 49 teachers at her school Wednesday that found 60 percent of them are affected by compression, with salaries not matching their years of service. 

Lacar said she was thankful for the $10,000 special education differential that began this spring and will be funded next school year if approved by lawmakers in SB2488. 

“You have no idea of the work we put in,” Lacar said, explaining a long list of federal laws and requirements she must compile, update, and coordinate for her students with special needs.

“The workload, the stress. It is unbearable to the point of many of us leave because we are just overworked and the differential, yes it’s money, but it’s knowing that we’re moving a step forward to support the teachers that have to go through this,” Lacar added.

She said out of the 10 special education teachers at her school, just five of them are qualified with the license to write individual education plans for students with special needs.

Ron Lake is a teacher at Hawaii School for the Deaf and Blind and addressed lawmakers in American Sign Language.

“I’m hesitant about retiring in the future because I don’t know if there’s anyone who will replace me. It’s hard to find people to work at the HSDB. That person has to be qualified. They have to have skills in American Sign Language. They have to have a lot of experience,” Lake said.

“Over the years, we have been lucky to find some qualified people. Maybe they stay two, three years, then they leave because of the financial challenges of living in Hawaii. For the school, it means we build something up, they leave, and everything crumbles," Lake added. "I hope you will help us, make us financially secure. We want to be able to invest more time and energy in our students.”

Lawmaker says not funding teacher compensation hikes would be a 'travesty'

During the discussion about the proposal, State Rep. Dale Kobayashi (D, Manoa, Punahou, University, Moiliili) said he knows lawmakers are looking at possible budget cuts to deal with the fallout from the coronavirus on Hawaii’s economy. 

“As we go through this process of looking for cuts or additional revenue given our revisions downward because of COVID-19, decrease in visitor arrivals, obviously we're looking at a number of things to take care of that deficit. It would be a travesty of massive proportions for teacher compensation to even be on the table for this discussion. I plead with the chair to find areas that aren’t so critical to our children’s future if we are looking to take that action,” Kobayashi told members of the education and labor committees.

Rosenlee: Friday's teacher testimony 'powerful'

“It’s really powerful when legislators have a chance to hear teachers' voices,” said HSTA President Corey Rosenlee. “There were over 600 pages of testimony that teachers sent in, and a lot of our teachers took off time to come down today to personally testify.”

Rosenlee said lawmakers were “able to see how the differentials on special education and hard to staff are actually impacting our teachers.”

Rosenlee said they also heard “from many of our teachers that are compressed, that for years have been compressed, and the impact that has of not being paid adequately. So I want to thank everyone that sent in testimony. I want to thank all the teachers that came down and testified. That had a huge impact to make sure that the bill was able to pass unanimously.”

Next, the bill goes to the House finance committee, when Rosenlee said, “We’re going to need teachers to come out and testify again, to send in their testimony to keep this momentum going. We have to keep on pushing to try to make sure that we finally get this thing funded. So we have to keep on going.” 

“I think the statement that mattered the most to me was from Rep. Kobayashi,” Rosenlee said. “He said, 'We know we’re dealing with a difficult time right now. Everyone’s aware of what’s happening with the budget, but we’ve got to find a way to make sure that we compensate our teachers appropriately even with all that’s going on.' So I hope that the Legislature keeps that sentiment, and makes sure that when they’re trying to cut things, that they don’t cut the things that are some of the most important, which is making sure that we educate our keiki.”

Click here to watch this video on YouTube.

Earlier in the day, teachers from Oahu and Maui delivered educator declarations signed by thousands of HSTA members across the state calling for higher pay for veterans and continued differentials for key shortage areas in special education, hard-to-staff schools and Hawaiian language immersion.

“Today, we dropped off 51 stacks of educator declarations to our representatives, letting them know that we request their support in passing SB2488,” Russo explained. “We appreciate all your support, and for signing the educator declarations and allowing us to deliver that on your behalf.”

The cover letter included with educator declarations delivered to lawmakers Friday said, "As you look through the thousands of signatures from teachers across our state, we hope that you will keep them in mind as this measure progresses through the legislature. While they (these thousands of teachers) can’t be present at the Capitol (today) because they are busy in the classroom working with our keiki, they are counting on you to address the teacher shortage crisis by fully funding SB 2488 SD2."

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Author: Keoki Kerr