Most positions targeted for elimination will likely remain

Posted: February 18, 2021

Most of the millions of dollars worth of sweeping job cuts and program reductions planned for public schools next fall will be restored, Hawaii State Department of Education officials informed the Board of Education Thursday. Board members also made shortage differential funding a priority for next school year and did not approve using federal stimulus funds to hire outside tutors.

Because school-level cuts have been drastically reduced, many of the educators and staff who’ve been notified that their positions would be eliminated starting next fall could very likely have their positions restored when tentative teaching lines are posted by March 8.

During the BOE meeting Thursday, Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto spoke about the $123 million that Gov. David Ige restored to the HIDOE’s budget.

“Those are permanent funds, and what we have done at this point is allocated those back to schools, and this will allow us now to bring down our SPPA (special education per-pupil allocation) or special (education) deficit from that shortfall down to zero, and so that’s fully funded again, and the WSF (weighted student formula) shortfall is now brought down to only one percent, and so we’re making progress and reinstating funds to schools. Principals now have to go through the task of revisiting their financial plans based on their overall academic plans, and so there’ll be more information forthcoming from the school sites as they work through this process,” Kishimoto said.

Earlier this year, HIDOE officials had said schools would need to endure a 10-percent cut to their funding next school year, an amount that was reduced to 2.5 percent prior to Thursday’s one-percent announcement.

Following Thursday’s BOE meeting, HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said, “While this is good news, we want to be very honest with our members. Even though the DOE has told principals to restore their weighted student formula and special education funding, we are still concerned that unless additional or current federal stimulus money can be approved and used to fill holes in the HIDOE budget, some educators might still lose their positions next school year.

“This does not end the fight. We’re still trying to make sure that teachers don’t have to endure pay cuts,” Rosenlee said, referring to the state’s proposals for HSTA’s next contract to reduce educators’ pay by 9.23 percent, keep the state’s contribution to health care premiums the same in spite of rising coverage costs and other benefit cuts. HSTA’s current contract expires June 30.

BOE members Thursday unanimously agreed with most of HSTA’s request that they delay approving HIDOE’s plan to use $183 million in federal schools stimulus funding because there are so many factors up in the air right now.

“These are the important questions that need to be answered before moving forward,” Rosenlee testified, including:

  1. What will the impact of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill be on funding? The plan pending before Congress contains $130 billion for education, which could bring close to $450 million in federal aid to Hawaii’s public schools. The stimulus bill will most likely pass next month. Knowing the exact amount and the stipulations, in combination with the previous stimulus bills will give this board and the legislature a better picture to decide how to use all the funding.
  2. The stimulus bills also contain $350 billion for state and local governments, in addition to the school aid, and all of that is just a portion of more than $1 billion in relief funds for Hawaii. How will that total aid impact the base budgeting for the HIDOE?
  3. The HIDOE is requesting $20 million for unemployment insurance and workers compensation. The governor previously gave the HIDOE $14 million to meet these needs. Will the governor use current or stimulus funds to pay for these needs?
  4. How much will the HIDOE get for reimbursement of PPE gear from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which President Biden recently announced?

HIDOE officials wanted the board to approve a plan Thursday to use $183 million in federal stimulus money to shore up various school budget shortfalls, asking the board for permission to use $48.5 million of the funds hiring tutors as teachers faced possible layoffs next school year.

BOE member Lynn Fallin echoed Rosenlee’s concerns, saying “It seems as if it’s been a moving target going for months.

“I am concerned about decisions with many moving parts,” Fallin added.

BOE Vice Chair Kenneth Uemura said, “Having been a CFO myself, I understand how the juggling takes place, and there are a lot of numerous moving parts, as member Fallin just stated, and how you determine how these federal stimulus funds are to be used. And of course with that, there are many assumptions that have to be made.”

Uemura worried about putting teachers through more stress. “To me, putting the teachers in a position of maybe having funding, creating all that anxiety of not having a job or taking a significant pay reduction, is not appealing,” he said.

“Federal stimulus funding, yes, it’s a temporary source of funding, but it does provide the financial bridge that we need to keep our teachers and the opportunity for things to improve,” Uemura continued. “We have the money now. Let’s take care of our immediate need, which is the teachers. Because you cannot educate our kids without teachers, right? So give them the security that they are going to be funded.”

Teachers across the state turned in hundreds of pages of written testimony raising concerns about possible cuts to school jobs and programs next school year and came out strong against plans to use nearly $50 million to hire tutors when classroom educators faced losing their jobs.

Vinny Byju, a first-year teacher of AP Psychology, history, and other courses at Aiea High School, told the sad tale that many new educators have had to endure this year.

“Last month, I was called in by my principal and told that I would not be rehired next year due to budget cuts. I have been asked to fill out a separation of service form and this feels very real to me. While these might all seem like numbers on the page to some, or even some teachers have potentially been put on the chopping block, I’ve had to rapidly scramble and figure out my life,” Byju testified.

“So here I am in front of the board once more, and I’m begging once again not for my job, but this time for an opportunity to help. I’m a highly qualified teacher with a recent bachelor’s degree in the subjects that I teach. I’m tech-literate and on the cutting edge of technology in the education space. I’m young, enthusiastic, dedicated, and all I’m doing is asking to help the state of Hawaii. I truly do not believe that tutors are the solution,” he told BOE members.

“I hope that not only my job but my opportunity to stay in the state of Hawaii and make a difference for our future is maintained and respected by the board,” he concluded.

Sarah Tochiki, the band director at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School on Kauai, testified, “As a music educator, I’m especially worried about funding for elective classes like music because they are not considered essential. Somewhere along the line, someone who was not an educator decided that SBA reading and math scores are the biggest indicators of a school’s effectiveness.

“Students come to school for their electives where we spark their creativity and foster their growth mindset. Leaders in our community talk about diversifying our economy away from the reliance on tourism. How can we talk about diversifying our economy with the tech industry or the arts or innovation if we defund the classes where these interests are fostered in students? Please do not allow programs like music to be cut in our schools because of budget shortfalls. We can use this federal funding to make sure that schools have adequate funding,” Tochiki said.

After hearing concerns from educators and community members, the BOE ultimately did not approve the HIDOE’s full plan to use $183 million in stimulus funds, including spending tens of millions of dollars of those funds hiring tutors.

Instead, the BOE unanimously approved this language: “The board authorizes the department to spend as much of the ESSER II (federal COVID-19 relief) funds as necessary to allocate the required amount to the charter schools, to close the gaps in the current fiscal year in the differentials and food service, and to cover teacher differentials for fiscal year 2022. The department is further directed to return to the board for further discussions once the new federal funds are allocated, and the state Legislature has finalized the budget for the Department of Education for FY22.”

The board also voted unanimously Thursday that by the close of business Friday, Kishimoto rescind her memo unilaterally eliminating teacher shortage differentials at the end of this school year. That vote came after educators, parents and others submitted hundreds more pages of testimony [1] [2]. Board members authorized the department to spend as much of federal COVID-19 education funds as necessary to allocate the required amount to cover teacher differentials next school year.