Senate, House bills would prohibit use of COVID-19 relief funds for tutors

Posted: February 17, 2021

The Hawaii State Department of Education would be required to use all $183 million in federal education stimulus funds to preserve school positions and continue employees’ current pay levels under bills that passed the State Senate and House education committees this week.

The measures would bar Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto from her plan to spend $48.5 million — nearly one-third of the current round of school stimulus money — on tutors, redirecting that money to stop school employee pay cuts and layoffs instead.

State Senate Education Committee Chair Michelle Kidani read from SB270 at the start of a hearing Wednesday afternoon, explaining it directs HIDOE to use federal COVID-19 schools aid “…. to offset any budget reductions that are identified or proposed by the Department of Education and the governor that would result in the reduction of personnel who are subject to a collective bargaining agreement pursuant to Chapter 89 Hawaii Revised Statutes, and who are employed at the school level including any budget reduction that results in a layoff, furlough or pay reduction.”

Testifying in favor of the proposal during an online hearing of the Senate Education Committee, HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said, “I spoke to teachers from Kauai last night. In the last year, they have been threatened with 20-percent pay cuts. They were threatened with pay cuts right before Christmas, and now they’re threatened with 9.23-percent pay cuts for the next four years. On top of that, they’ve been told they potentially could lose their jobs.

“Teachers across the state are stressed, and the sooner we act to allay those stresses will not only allay those stresses but also our keiki,” Rosenlee said.

Senate Education Committee Vice Chair Donna Mercado Kim asked HIDOE officials, “What percentage of the (federal relief fund) monies are going to sustain the personnel and the teachers?”

The proposal HIDOE submitted to the Board of Education which will be discussed Thursday called for approximately $14.5 million to be spent on salaries out of $183 million in stimulus education funds from the federal government. That’s approximately eight percent of this round of the federal schools aid, Brian Hallet, the HIDOE’s chief financial officer, told senators.

Kishimoto told senators, “We’ve taken the $123 million and put that base funding since that’s general funding and permanent funding back into schools and we’re using permanent funding to restore positions.

“This bill is referring only to the one-time federal funding. But we took the opposite approach. We’re saying it’s permanent funding that we’re looking to put towards permanent positions,” Kishimoto added.

The Senate Education Committee approved the proposal Wednesday and it now will be heard by the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

House wants to assure sufficient staffing

State House leaders have also introduced bills directing the HIDOE to use millions in federal stimulus funding to preserve educators’ jobs, contrary to the department’s plan to use nearly one-third of stimulus funds bound for the education department to hire outside tutors.

During a hearing on HB613 Tuesday afternoon before the House Education Committee, House Majority Leader Della Au Bellati said, “What we are saying at the Legislature with this proposal is ‘Let’s shore up this money to ensure there is sufficient staffing first.’

“I want my child who is right now struggling in public school to be able to get tutoring over the summer. But is that something that maybe is not in the core at the moment? I think that maybe that would be a way to say ‘yes.’ We don’t need to pay for private tutors now,” Bellati said.

“What we need to do is figure out funding so that we have sufficient staffing both for the rest of this year, as well as, God willing, we will have all of our students in the classroom in the fall,” she added.

“That’s why we’re saying we want those funds to go to these purposes versus the other extraneous stuff that’s been proposed,” Belatti said.

Rosenlee, the teachers’ union president, testified in support of the bill Tuesday, saying that the federal stimulus funds “need to be viewed as a stop-gap measure in advance of President Biden’s proposal where Congress’s anticipated approval of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan some time in the next few weeks.

“HSTA research and sources indicate that Biden’s American Rescue Plan could bring close to $400 million in federal aid to Hawaii’s public schools,” Rosenlee added.

The stimulus plan pending before Congress requires that 20 percent of school stimulus money be spent on learning loss, while the current stimulus plan does not have those requirements, offering greater flexibility, he said.

“By using stimulus funding, schools will be able to restore positions planned for elimination and avoid more valued school employees leaving Hawaii under the threat of huge pay cuts and layoffs,” Rosenlee said.

Cheri Nakamura, HEʻE coalition director, also supported the proposal.

“We agree that priority for our system should be on restoring positions at the school level and that federal funds should be used to guarantee that these positions are maintained. The personnel in the classroom, those who are closest to our students, should be the highest priority,” Nakamura said.

HEʻE is a statewide coalition founded in response to school furloughs more than a decade ago which is committed to working to identify opportunities to improve public education in Hawaii.

Kishimoto, the superintendent, told House lawmakers, “My recommendation to the Board of Education for these one-time funds is to provide solutions to address unmet needs for public school resources to address severe learning gaps, provide for health and safety measures related to reopening schools and offset critical shortfall areas which goes beyond the staffing component.”

“We agree school leaders, teachers and staff are an effective component in our education system and believe these positions need to be secured through permanent positions and permanent funding, not one-time relief funds,” Kishimoto added.

House Education Vice Chair Jeanne Kapela told Kishimoto Tuesday, “Qualified teachers are the most important thing we need to provide in order to ensure that our children are getting a quality learning experience.”

“Three of the schools that are in my district are among the top five most severely affected by the teacher shortage crisis. I’m really worried that the pandemic and the budget crisis could make things even worse,” Kapela said.

Kishimoto answered Kapela by saying, “We still have a $141 million shortfall. We had $100 million taken from our schools, from our department this year in the middle of a pandemic and we don’t have enough money to pay our bills.”

“What I’m asking for as the state superintendent is please reinstate the base budget, that $141 million gap in our base budget, which just holds us whole in order for us to not only do what we do in a normal school year but also address all the additional costs,” Kishimoto added.

“Right now I have 25,000 students in the middle grades who are two or more years behind in reading and math, and so we can’t have these disconnected conversations. I not only need the teachers, I need security, I need cleaning and I need intervention support now for these kids so they’re not on a pathway to failure as they go into high school and can’t do the work,“ Kishimoto told lawmakers.

“I’m not asking for one thing over the other. I’m asking for it all,” she said.

Kishimoto has proposed using $48.5 million in federal stimulus funds to hire tutors, many of them based outside of Hawaii. That’s a decrease from her original proposal to spend $53 million on tutors out of the $183 million in federal public school aid set aside for the islands.

Rep. Kapela asks if HIDOE can save money by cutting standardized tests

If the DOE needs extra money, Kapela asked Kishimoto, “Have you considered evaluating the number of external contracts that you folks already have to see if there’s anything you can cut down on, for example, the number of contracts you have for maybe testing?”

“This bill would make sure that we protect those people and who our students most depend on,” Kapela said.

Kishimoto did not directly address Kapela’s question about reducing testing contracts, but said,“I agree with you wholeheartedly. There is nothing more important than having highly qualified educators in front of our students teaching them and not have that impact.

“My point is that’s not enough, and we see that in the achievement outcomes. We see that in the impacts on school campuses. We see that in the additional needs that are coming out of the COVID pandemic,” Kishimoto said.

Rep. Woodson questions superintendent’s approach to learning loss

House Education Chair Justin Woodson challenged Kishimoto on her approach to effectively deal with learning loss.

Looking at successful school models in Finland, British Columbia in Canada, Singapore, and the state of Maryland, Woodson said, “In all those examples, which can be instructive to us, they have teachers dealing with learning loss. They plan to deal with learning loss within the parameters of normal classroom instruction. They do not think it’s effective to have substitute teachers or after-school classes to try to make up some of these gains.

“You’re depending on outside instruction for learning loss. In terms of effective strategies, that should happen during regular school,” Woodson concluded.

The House Education Committee approved the measure Tuesday, passing it on to the House Finance Committee for further consideration.

Kishimoto received a rare public rebuke by the Board of Education chair after she informed complex area superintendents and principals last week that shortage differentials intended to retain teachers in hard-to-fill positions would end next school year because of the tough economic situation. The BOE has scheduled a special meeting for Thursday, Feb. 18, at 11 a.m. to vote on a proposal to direct Kishimoto to rescind her memo ending the differentials.