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Several thousand public school teachers packed the grounds of the state Capitol on Monday as part of a rally calling on the governor and lawmakers to increase funding for public schools and raise teacher salaries.
The Hawaii State Teachers Association, which organized the event, is in negotiations with the state for a new labor contract for its 13,500 members. The union also is lobbying for legislation that would allow the state to tap into property taxes to help finance public schools.
An estimated 5,000 teachers (the union said 6,000 rallied, while state Capitol security estimated 4,000) marched from the Neal Blaisdell Center to the Capitol while chanting and carrying signs and posters. One sign read, “Overworked, Underpaid &Under Appreciated.” Another said, “You can’t put students first if you put teachers last.” There was no school Monday for Oahu students because it was Teacher Institute Day.
HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said teachers showed up in force to send the message that schools are not adequately funded and teachers are underpaid.
“For too long the children of Hawaii have been ignored, they have been neglected. We have not funded our schools, and that has had consequences,” Rosenlee said after the rally. “We have a lot of frustrated teachers. They’re the ones on the front lines every single day that are dealing with the crowded classrooms; they’re dealing with the low pay and with more paperwork. I think what the turnout shows is that they’re frustrated and they want change.”
He added, “We also want to send a message to the governor and to his team, saying that we’re not asking for Champagne and caviar, we’re just asking for a decent contract.”
In a recent round of contract talks, negotiators for the state offered teachers annual 1 percent lump-sum bonuses in lieu of pay raises. The union said the average teacher would get a $550 bonus under that proposal and — after taxes and increased health care costs — most teachers would see a decrease in their take-home pay.
Kalaheo High School teacher Marie Lindsey, who participated in Monday’s rally, called the state’s offer degrading.
“My first reaction was it was really, really insulting,” said Lindsey, who teaches engineering as part of her school’s Career and Technical Education program. She’s in her third year of teaching after moving home to Hawaii from the mainland, where she was a park ranger.
“It’s a thankless job money-wise, but when you go into the classroom and you see the kids and you know that they’re learning something and they’re getting ready to go on to college or get a good career, then it’s worth it. But it’s really insulting to not be appreciated by the adults. Where’s the respect?”
The union recently completed an analysis comparing Hawaii’s teacher salaries with those of teachers in 10 cities where the cost of living is similar to Hawaii, including San Francisco; Oakland, Calif.; New York; and Washington, D.C.
The study found Hawaii’s starting salary of $46,601 for beginning licensed teachers ranks eighth lowest among the 10 comparable school districts, while the state’s highest salary of $85,488 for the most experienced teachers ranks ninth lowest — without adjusting for cost of living. The average teacher here is earning $58,959 this school year, according to the Department of Education.
When Rosenlee shared the statistics during his rally speech, noting that teachers in Hawaii are paid anywhere from $4,000 to $25,000 less than the average of their mainland counterparts, depending on experience, the crowd of teachers erupted in loud boos.
Micah Pregitzer, a science teacher at Kalaheo High, said he felt energized by the turnout.
“It’s awesome to see all the teachers come together for this to let all the legislators know that this is very important to us and we deserve better pay for what we do,” said Pregitzer, who’s been teaching for 12 years. “I love the actual teaching part. I love teaching the kids and teaching science is my passion, so despite the low pay I continue to do it.”
His colleague at Kalaheo, Crystal Stafford, who’s been teaching for 10 years, said she was feeling hopeful after the event.
“It’s kind of hard when … you see the conditions that we work in and you look at your paycheck every two weeks and you think, ‘Where did it go?’ But to see this many people come out together and rally for a cause … it’s very cool,” Stafford said.
Rosenlee said the union is still pushing hard for its property tax proposals, which are still alive at the Legislature.
HSTA is seeking surcharges on residential investment properties and visitor accommodations to raise an estimated $500 million a year that would be set aside for schools.
Hawaii, which has the only statewide school district in the country, is the only state that does not use property taxes to finance education. Schools are state-funded primarily from the general fund, which is filled by revenue from general excise, personal income and other taxes.
Senate Education Chairwoman Michelle Kidani, showing her support in a red HSTA T-shirt, told the crowd of teachers that she supports increased funding for schools. Kidani said the state’s resources are being stretched thin among competing priorities, from education to senior care.
“We have to take a stand. We have to figure it out, how we are going to continue funding education,” she said. “We cannot compete and pit our kupuna against our keiki. We need our own funding.”