Living paycheck to paycheck, a Hawaii Island teacher explains how furloughs would hurt his family and many others

‘The current furloughs would hit my wife and I so hard, we may never financially recover.’

Nico Friedman, a teacher at Kealakehe High School on Hawaii Island, submitted the following letter as public written testimony to the Hawaii State Board of Education.

Aloha Board Chair and members of the Board of Education,

My name is Nico Friedman, and I am a high school social studies teacher at Kealakehe High School here in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island. I am testifying on agenda item V.B, the impending furloughs announced by Gov. Ige and the schedule announced by Superintendent Kishimoto.

My teaching experience began officially here on the Big Island in 2016. I came to the island as part of a teacher prep program designed to address needs and gaps in education across the nation; ultimately I was assigned to the Hawaii region. In all honesty, I was hesitant to join the teachers here as the commitment to move to the state is an expensive and deep undertaking for someone who was under 25. Despite these initial misgivings, I remembered my purpose for entering education and did everything I could to prepare. I moved here in the heat of the summer with no help from family, no connections, newly married, and with the news that I would be a father for the first time. We packed up our lives and left behind our families, our connections, and everything we had built to be part of the courageous and dedicated teaching force here in Hawaii.

Right now, I am being put in the most difficult position. Our family has not one, but two educators. My wife is also a teacher in the Hawaii DOE system. We are both relatively new teachers and will both be up for tenure this coming school year. And yet, we are so uncertain about what this next year will bring. We live in a tiny, cramped, and frankly overtaxed studio apartment for which we pay $1,200 a month. This is half of my pay. We have a car note, utility bills, wifi and phone bills, and student loans. Our beautiful daughter has special needs and requires care while we are at work, as well as medications, therapy, special dietary needs and other services that are NOT all covered by insurance and cost us a significant amount of money. I personally have been diagnosed with severe Crohn’s and face a lifetime of pain and lifestyle management that is costly and considerably pervasive in everything I do. Our options have already been limited, with the ambiguous telework options and safety precautions, the designation of us being “essential” to work but not “essential” enough to pay, and our continual reminder that we need to “be present for the kids” forgoing our own familial needs and responsibilities.

We live paycheck to paycheck, barely squeezing by, and have even at times been forced to work multiple jobs and positions, some PTT through our school and some in the world of retail and have STILL been overdrafted before. Even as I share with you now, we have less than $100 in our checking account with no savings to speak of. We have budgeted, and cut, and cut, and CUT again. Nothing has prevented our situation from remaining the same. And yet, we managed. We continuously overcame and joined the many other educators who experience the same hardships day by day as a resilient force of reckoning. No matter the situation or need, we always turn up to our job with smiles, open hearts, and solid plans to bring learning and knowledge to our students to better prepare them for the world and beyond.

The current furloughs would hit my wife and I so hard, we may never financially recover. There’s little we can do to alleviate this crisis too. Aside from costly borrowing or bank loans and other predatory lending practitioners, there is next to no financial assistance for educators. We are salaried, and even with the furlough cuts, in the eyes of the powers that be, we are too over paid to qualify for assistance. No food stamps, no TANF, no housing voucher or Section 8. Even if we are unable to pay our bills, the answer is too bad… there is nothing we can do. We are ultimately responsible despite our lack of control over this matter.

Since the beginning, I have worked tirelessly from the very bottom as an emergency hire, juggling my own master’s education and training, teachers prep programming, constant changes and development of my school and district, the birth of my daughter, and the diagnosis of a lifelong debilitating health condition. In the year following the birth of our daughter, as I said before, my wife also joined us here in the DOE as an elementary school teacher, immediately adapting and shifting her experiences. We are both committed educators who, even after the end of my program, committed to remaining here and continuing our work in the community of Kona and with the amazing teams we have here addressing the needs of our keiki. There is not one day we do not discuss ways we can continue to learn and grow as educators!

And what do we show for it? I started with the Hawaii DOE in July of 2016. I received my first paycheck in late September. We went through our entire savings because we were asked to “be patient” and “wait for the system.” As an emergency hire, I was required to go above and beyond my contract to be considered “effective” and “committed.” I was constantly belittled and mocked, labeled as a deserter before I began because of the state’s history with new teacher turnover. I was challenged and questioned. My credentials were under scrutiny constantly and I felt the pressures of my personal life mixing with the anxiety and tiredness of my job. I worked for a pittance of pay because in the end, the money was just a result of the beautiful work I had before me, being a support, being a mentor, and being a connection for these wonderful keiki as well as a teacher.

I worked endlessly to provide support for my special education students and their specific needs, as well as the kiddos in my inclusion classes, general education and special education alike. And finally, I got to the point where we are now, finally somewhat stable, able to be a part of the school with my whole soul, not tied to multiple places of work, juggling typically out of reach expenses and the high cost of living. We are both doing this, my wife, who is also a teacher works with her school’s ILT and ART team, dedicates her time and energy as a grade-level chair and a dedicated SEL educator.

And now this.

We are both being told we will receive a pay cut being that we are both teachers in the Hawaii DOE. The furloughs that will be taking 9.2% of our pay do not just affect us once; they affect us TWICE. And we are not alone. We are not the only educators to be affected this way. Countless colleagues even here on the Big Island are facing similar drawbacks. There are many educators who share their careers with their spouses, with their relatives, and family members. There are generational members, there are even single educator households and many more people that will be impacted by these furloughs in a way that will decimate our teaching force. We cannot afford them. We did not have an excess of income to begin with. I have seen so many members of my own faculty with such sad smiles, hiding the truth of their struggles every day. And even now, we are facing a financial crisis (both personally) and statewide that will continue to erode our community wellbeing, even more so if these furloughs occur. Our students will lose teachers.

Many of the teachers who are struggling are being forced to consider their futures. We are all being asked to do something no one should be asked to do—to balance our futures and wellbeing and that of our families compared to the future of our students. We are being forced into a corner that is asking us to sacrifice our very livelihood for the sake of our keiki rather than being supported and given the tools to successfully address their needs and protect the safety of our home. Our schools are cutting staff from almost every department. We are losing necessary and valuable people with expertise and specific training that is vital to the delivery of resources for our kids’ needs. We are being asked to deliver quality instruction with less time, with less prep, with less support, and now ultimately with less pay. We are being directed to give 200% effort and 300% effort where there is already 100%. And again, for less pay.

What will our families do to survive? Who will think of our needs if not the BOE/DOE? What can we do to offset the financial discrepancies we will all face? Ultimately, we will not be able to. And we, as a state, as a department, a school system, as educators, as mentors, and as the few lines of support for our keiki, will all lose.

There are other options, and, as even members of the state Legislature have said, there is time to consider other things. We need to consider more carefully. We need to wait.

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