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Hawaii Panel Designates Relief Money For Teacher Salaries

AP Photo/Jennifer Sinco Kelleher

HONOLULU — The state House education committee on Tuesday passed legislation compelling the state Department of Education to use federal coronavirus relief money to support public school teacher salaries instead of allocating the funds for uses including tutoring and school security.
The legislation now goes to the House Finance Committee for consideration.

Corey Rosenlee, the president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, testified that the measure was needed to prevent Hawaii's public schools, which already have difficulties retaining qualified teachers, from losing even more due to the threat of layoffs and pay cuts.

At the start of the pandemic, the department was facing a projected budget shortfall of $460 million because the pandemic virtually froze the tourism industry and severely depleted tax revenues. Since then, a modest recovery and other adjustments prompted Gov. David Ige's administration to restore funds to the department. Even so, it is facing a budget next year that is $141 million smaller than its base budget.

Rosenlee said 1,000 department employees, including 700 teachers, are facing the possibility of being laid off because of budget cuts. Using $104 million in education federal relief funds, however, would spare these jobs, 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 told the committee during a hearing held via video because of the pandemic.

State Rep. Jeanne Kapela, whose Big Island district runs from Naalehu to Kailua-Kona, said three of the five schools most affected by teacher shortages are in her district.

"I'm really worried that the pandemic and the budget crisis could, in fact, make things even worse," said Kapela, a Democrat.

Christina Kishimoto, the schools superintendent, told the committee that teacher salaries should be covered by permanent funding, not relief money. She asked lawmakers to restore the $141 million to her department's base budget to return it to where it was before the pandemic.

She added that she has to cover not only teacher salaries but personal protective equipment during the pandemic, campus security and ways to help students who have fallen even further behind in their students while the pandemic has disrupted in-person learning.

She said Hawaii currently has 25,000 middle school students 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 said.

The Senate education committee plans to consider a similar bill at a hearing on Wednesday.

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