Shortage differentials to continue following passionate testimony before the Board of Education

Board takes no action on proposed suspension in light of ‘promises and commitments’

Nearly 4,000 educators will keep their shortage differentials following a marathon Hawaii State Board of Education (BOE) meeting Thursday.

Hours of testimony and discussion led the board to drop a Hawaii State Department of Education (HIDOE) proposal to suspend approximately $30 million in differentials for special education classroom teachers, Hawaiian language immersion educators, and educators at hard-to-staff schools. The differentials took effect in January and applied to three areas identified as having the worst shortages.

In light of a $100 million budget reduction triggered by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and lack of funding from state lawmakers, the department requested a “temporary discontinuance” of the differentials.

Passionate arguments against the proposal were prevalent in the 4,000 pages of written testimony and among educators who testified virtually.

Click here to listen to a recording of the meeting. If you are prompted for a password, enter HawaiiBOE2020.

Initial figures show the differentials were working. The department was able to recruit and retain 249 educators in special education classroom positions and hard-to-staff schools for the 2020–21 school year.

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee says the differentials “worked better than our dreams ever imagined,” and not just by filling the actual positions. Rosenlee says higher education programs that funnel educators into these positions also saw a significant increase.

Rosenlee noted that the University of Hawaii postbaccalaureate special education program increased enrollment by 55 percent, and the special education licensing program at Leeward Community College jumped from 37 to 93 applicants or two and a half times as many applicants as the year before. In fact, Rosenlee said, “They have so many students who want to become SpEd teachers now, they have a waitlist. That’s something we never could have imagined before.”

Board member Christine “Kili” Namauʻu said, “We’re starting to see that it has made a difference. It’s been years since we’ve been able to recruit more people, retain more people, and through anecdotes and now with additional testimony today, we have seen that it is making a difference. I do not want to take this away from teachers. We need to support them.”

Board members heard strong testimony from educators explaining the negative economic and emotional impacts of ending the extra payments. They acknowledged that many teachers made major life decisions based on these differentials.

Rebecca Hadley-Schlosser, a special education teacher at Nanaikapono Elementary on the Waianae coast of Oahu, choked back tears as she described her rollercoaster of emotions from elation over the differentials to feelings of disrespect and devaluation over its potential discontinuance.

“I’m going back into the classroom after having spent the last two years as the SSC (student services coordinator) at Nanaikapono. This is a $15,000 salary loss for me,” she said. “I did not get a paycheck on Monday. Knowing that I would be getting the differential for being a special education teacher and working at a hard-to-staff geographical location helped me feel better about going back into the classroom. That’s what you wanted. That’s why you implemented this differential for us. To hear that you’re considering to take this back is disheartening for me as a special education teacher.”

Justin Hughey, a special education teacher at Kamehameha III Elementary on Maui, said he and his wife, a science teacher at Maui High School, were planning to move to the mainland with their newborn until the differentials were announced last December.

“The differentials enabled us to change our minds about moving because we could finally afford daycare,” he said. “It is irresponsible to take the differentials away at this time. One, teachers can’t apply for a different job at this time. Two, teachers can no longer change our current health care plan, which could have created $500 of additional monthly income. Three, the teachers who moved into a position of differentials have no recourse. And four, taking away what was promised will have long-lasting negative effects on our profession.”

Board member Kenneth Uemura said he questioned why the matter was even brought before the board. “The department should be accountable for the initiative and not look to the board for relief. The department gave assurances to the board, made promises to the classroom teachers in the form of what is in essence salary increases, and cannot renege using the pandemic crisis since this was pre-pandemic and should have been incorporated in their budget,” he said. “It’s an obligation. You owe them the money, and that (worrying about the pay cycle) shouldn’t drive our decision. I’d go back and say look, sharpen your pencils, come back to the board, and tell us what you’re looking at.”

“This is a trust matter,” added board member ​Shanty Asher. “There were promises and commitments made. And even during these difficult times, they cannot be an area that we wanted to give up because they (our teachers) came through for the state, and right now we have to stand firm and help them.”

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