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Maui County teachers applaud state-approved pay incentives

DOE is hoping to recruit, retain ‘high need’ teachers

Jennifer Kaaikala

Maui County educators who work in three high need areas in Hawaii — special education, hard-to-staff geographical locations and Hawaiian language immersion programs — are applauding recent moves by the state to provide extra compensation.

“It’s great. It’s needed, just because the cost of living (is so high) salaries don’t really cover that,” said Hana elementary and middle school reading specialist Christel Blumer-Buell, who could receive an $8,000 increase for teaching in a hard-to-staff location.

Finding a place to stay is tough with housing shortages all around the island, including East Maui.

“So it’s very expensive,” said Blumer-Buell, who has spent more than 40 years teaching in Hana. She also pointed out that groceries are expensive and gas in town hovers around $5 per gallon, making the cost of living high in East Maui.

Blumer-Buell said Hana has a full Hawaiian language immersion program, but “we are scrounging for teachers, so the incentive pay for them is important, as well as special education.”

Ric Ornellas

She added that some teachers did have concerns about the differences in incentives, which vary, with one teacher suggesting that the pay incentives be equal across the board.

At Lanai High & Elementary School, Jennifer Kaaikala, a high school special education life skills teacher, is also pleased.

“It is long overdue,” she said, noting the time special education teachers put in developing, facilitating and inputting individualized education plans for students, as well as participating in meetings.

Special education teachers design instruction not only for their own classes, but also for special education students enrolled in other classes, said Kaaikala, who could see an $8,000 incentive for working in a hard-to-staff location along with $10,000 for being a licensed special education teacher.

“My only fear (with the increase) is that admin will take advantage and feel there is no limit to the duties they can add on due to the increase,” said Kaaikala, who has been teaching for 28 years, including at schools on the Mainland.

But she feels the incentives will help teachers remain in their jobs.

“They need to be able to afford to work in Hawaii and the extra work with no pay damages morale,” she said.

Last week, the state Board of Education approved a state Department of Education proposal to provide extra compensation for classroom teachers in the three high-need areas. The pay differentials, which depend on different factors and start at $3,000, will take effect Jan. 7, according to the DOE.

Gov. David Ige has committed to the funding by including it in his supplemental budget, which will still require legislative approval in the 2020 legislative session, the DOE said.

Maui County has four complexes that will qualify for the hard-to-staff location differential — Lahainaluna, Hana, Lanai and Molokai.

The Lahainaluna complex meets two criteria under the hard-to-staff category, so licensed Hawaii Teacher Standards Board educators will receive $5,000.

The other three complexes meet four criteria; Hawaii licensed teachers in those areas will receive $8,000 annually.

Special education teachers in the state will receive an additional $10,000, while qualified Hawaiian immersion teachers at certain DOE Hawaiian immersion schools will receive an additional $8,000.

According to a DOE report, the state has 2,212 special education positions, with 154 vacancies. Of the positions, 84 percent, or 1,860, are filled by those who have gone through a state-approved teacher education program. Nine percent, or 198 positions, are filled by educators who have not gone through the program.

Within the Hawaiian language immersion programs, there are 161 positions, with 107, or 66 percent, filled.

But only 54 of those positions are filled with qualified, licensed Hawaiian language immersion teachers, according to information from the DOE.

Lindsay Ball, superintendent for the Hana-Lahainaluna-Lanai-Molokai Complex Area, said he thinks the incentives are “a good thing.”

“It’s a good starting point,” he said.

Ball has combed the nation to find good teachers, venturing to South Dakota, Nebraska and twice to Missouri.

But he said it is hard to recruit teachers, especially new educators whose first jobs would be in isolated areas like Molokai and Lanai.

Ric Ornellas, a Molokai High School teacher, looked at the proposed incentives for the “long term.”

He understands how the increases can pay bills and help with costs, but he said the recent proposals are “a recognition of our professionalism.”

“I’m very grateful for what they are doing. They are looking at the big picture,” he said, adding that the incentives would aid students in the future by providing them with qualified teachers.

The high school special education teacher, who also teaches a variety of subjects including AVID, a college readiness program, said that special education teachers are required by law.

Without special education teachers and those services, “lawsuits can be filed,” said Ornellas,who grew up on Molokai and returned home in the 2000s after living on the Mainland.

Lack of educators in critical areas has landed the state in legal hot water. In 2013, a Lanai mother sued the DOE and BOE for failing to provide her daughters access to Hawaiian immersion education at Lanai High & Elementary. The school principal blamed teacher recruiting challenges due to the island’s remote and rural location.

In a document supporting the incentives, the DOE referenced the case and noted the state Supreme Court ruling in August affirming that the Hawaii Constitution requires “reasonable access” within the DOE to Hawaiian immersion programs.

Educators on Lanai continue to face challenges. Kaaikala moved from the Mainland to Lanai when her husband retired from the Air Force and returned home. She noted the high costs of living on Lanai, as residents need to fly off-island, rent a car and stay in a hotel in order to see medical specialists. Children cannot live at home and attend college — unless they do so virtually.

She has two children ages 27 and 30.

Blumer-Buell, who moved to Hana in 1974 from California, said she wouldn’t be able to make it as a teacher if she had moved to Hawaii now. She hoped the incentives could help younger teachers.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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