Frustration, Desperation As Teachers Convene To Discuss Pay Issues

Sep 24, 2019

Private consultants met with public teachers in Honolulu on Monday evening.
Credit Ryan Finnerty

Consultants hired by the Hawaii Department of Education are meeting with educators around the state, seeking ways to improve compensation. On the first night they heard from many barely hanging on.

On Monday night, several dozen teachers crammed into a classroom on the McKinley High School campus to talk about how they’re paid.

The meeting was organized by their employer, the state Department of Education, but led by consultants from Augenblick-Paliach and Associates, a national education policy firm based in Denver. They’re holding a series of listening sessions across Hawaii.

Hawaii’s teachers have once again been ranked as the worst paid in the nation when factoring in cost of living, this time according to personal finance website WalletHub.

Two 90-minute meetings were held on Monday. The format was largely unstructured, with most of the time given for teachers to identify issues. Many told stories of living paycheck to paycheck, buried under student loans and high rents.

One woman remarked on the irony of holding a master’s degree while struggling to earn even $50,000, well below what the federal government considers low income for urban Honolulu. Another man said it took him 16 years of teaching with the DOE to reach a $50,000 annual salary, only $4,000 above where he started.

Lisa Morrison, a teacher turned student activities coordinator at Maui Waena Intermediate in Kahului, said the cost of low pay can be seen in the rate of turnover for Hawaii’s public teachers, the highest in the nation in 2018.

“When you have turn over and you have teachers leaving, then the students really suffer,” Morrison said. Data shows that teachers with even a few years of experience are more effective than new graduates.

Poor retention also increases costs to taxpayers, as the state is forced to spend money recruiting from the Mainland. Despite an incentive program, Hawaii doesn’t produce enough teachers locally. But many transplant teachers leave after just a few years.

Part of the reason, according to Hawaii State Teachers Union President Corey Rosenlee, is that Hawaii is competing with states and cities that pay higher wages for educators.

“Today, you heard from teachers that came from New York and Boston in San Diego districts where there is similar cost of living as Hawaii, and every single one of them said, ‘I took a pay cut when I came here,’” Rosenlee said following the Monday evening session.

Indeed, several who spoke at the meeting told the consultants that their peers in states like New York and Massachusetts could be making six-figure salaries in just a few years.

Whether they hailed from Hawaii or elsewhere, all of the teachers expressed frustration with issues like a hard to navigate bureaucracy, the necessity of working unpaid hours, and a glacial pace of raises. Many work second jobs outside the classroom, up to one-third, according to a 2016 survey conducted by their union.

That’s the kind of information the consultants were hired to find out. They are meeting with teachers on Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii Island to find out how the state can improve not just how much teachers make, but also structural issues like the schedule for promotions and raises, transferring previous experience, and creating incentives for hard-to-fill-positions.

But all will require money, and several recent attempts to improve teacher pay have failed.

Michelle Kidani, state Senate vice president and chair of the Senate Committee on Education, said teachers should be paid as well as other vital public servants.

“Why do our police recruits, our fire recruits, you know, make more starting pay than teachers? And I'm not saying that they do not deserve it -- by all means, yes, they do. But so do our teachers. Why are teachers always at the bottom of the rung?” asked Kidani, who has supported previous attempts to raise compensation for public teachers.

Ideally, she said, lawmakers would find space in the budget to increase teacher pay without raising taxes but, if that cannot be done, she did not rule out an increase in general excise taxes.

In a written statement, the DOE said it hopes the study will help decision-makers craft a compensation package to maximize teacher recruitment and retention.

Other listening sessions with teachers will be held throughout the week on Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii Island.

Tuesday, September 24 (O‘ahu, Kapolei High School Cafeteria)

• 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

• 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Wednesday, September 25 (Maui, Baldwin High School Auditorium)

4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Thursday, September 26 (Hawai‘i Island, Keaau High School Cafeteria)

4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Correction: The orignal version of this story stated that one-third of teachers surveyed by HSTA held second jobs. HSTA later clarified that the survey indicated 58 percent of teachers held second jobs to include paid school work like tutoring and coaching. 33 percent of the total worked a second job in an non-education field.