State could be short 300 teachers, HSTA estimates
By Alice Keesing
Advertiser Education Writer
The Department of Education is scrambling to put a teacher in every classroom as the school year begins, but it likely will fall well short in the face of stiff competition from other states during a nationwide teacher shortage.
It's too early to say how Hawai'i has fared this year in filling its 1,400 to 1,500 annual vacancies, said DOE personnel director Sandra McFarlane. The numbers are fluctuating daily as the department adds new arrivals and subtracts those who are leaving or retiring, she said. However, McFarlane believes the department's aggressive recruiting tactics are starting to pay off.
But the Hawai'i State Teachers Association believes the system could still be short about 300 teachers, leaving substitutes and part-timers to fill the classrooms.
By comparison, the state was short 164 teaching positions in November of last year.
The department is laboring under the growing expectation of a qualified teacher in every classroom to help the schools move forward. And there is the added pressure from a federal judge who has said he will take over the special education system if the department does not bring the number of special-education teachers who are licensed from 77 percent to 85 percent by November.
Making some progress
The department is gaining ground, McFarlane believes. DOE recruiters succeeded in attracting about 300 Mainland teachers to Hawai'i schools this year. And a Mainland headhunter, Columbus Educational Corp., has swelled the ranks by an additional 138 special education teachers, despite a lower-than-expected result last school year. The Columbus contract was much maligned by the teachers union because it offered more lucrative packages to newcomers than existing teachers receive.
The effects of the recruitment drives are working their way down to the schools, even in notoriously hard-to-staff areas such as Ka'u on the Big Island. At Na'alehu Elementary & Intermediate, principal Peter Volpe is beginning the year with a full staff.
"That's one of the stresses and nightmares that principals go through because you don't have a full staff and school is approaching," Volpe said. "But this is one of the better years."
Maui District, which includes the islands of Moloka'i and Lana'i, also has struggled in the past.
At the end of last week, the Maui personnel office was still searching for 23 special education teachers, six counselors and about 20 regular classroom teachers.
Even with those vacancies, Maui personnel specialist Robyn Honda believes the hard work is paying off.
"We're doing much better than last year," said Honda, who has been known to recruit at the supermarket and the airport.
But in other areas, it's still a struggle. At Leihoku Elementary in Leeward O'ahu, principal Randall Miura is without five of his 55 teachers this year. Those five teachers were supposed to be part of a program to bring down class sizes so each student gets more time and help learning to read.
"It's worse (this year) in the sense that there's not a pool of applicants from which we can interview from," Miura said.
The HSTA is placing some of the blame for the continuing shortage on the governor. The teachers contract remains unsigned and unpaid while the state and union argue over whether a bonus for teachers with master's degrees was meant to be paid for one or two years.
"This shortage is only going to get worse if we don't get this contract in place," said HSTA Executive Director Joan Husted. The continuing dissension can only be keeping prospective recruits away, she believes.
For Elsa Svensson, the promise that Hawai'i's teachers' strike was settled was enough to lure her from her Seattle classroom, convince her husband to quit his job and pack their belongings for a new life in Hilo. Svensson is exactly the kind of teacher the DOE is keen to recruit. She works in special education. She has a master's degree and another degree in sign language interpreting. And she was looking at a long-term commitment to Hawai'i's schools.
Yet just three weeks after Svensson started at Hilo Union, she was back in Seattle, unpacking the two 7-foot-tall shipping containers that a short time before carried the promise of a new career for her and help for Hawai'i's understaffed schools.
"It turned into a nightmare," said Svensson, who is $4,500 out of pocket for the experience and is bitter over what she says were broken promises of a new contract and unreasonable delays in payment.
The HSTA says Svensson's case is an extreme example of the confusion and frustration permeating Hawai'i schools as the DOE tries to increase its ranks. Husted met with DOE officials last week to discuss her concerns about the treatment of new recruits.
"We're getting absolutely flooded with complaints from new employees about the promises that are not going to be delivered," Husted said.
Trouble with bonuses
Some new arrivals are having problems getting their moving bonuses, she said. Others are having to retake the PRAXIS test, which is required for certification in Hawai'i, even though they have taken the same test and passed it elsewhere. And there is a general atmosphere of discouragement, Husted said, that is causing teachers to leave, move to private schools or take leaves of absence.
"The newer employee is much more verbally assertive," Husted said. "They know they're in a sellers' market, they know they can peddle their wares almost anywhere they want, and they just won't put up with this."
McFarlane agreed the procedure for paying the moving bonuses can be a "little slow." The bonuses for special education teachers range from $1,500 for those moving from the West Coast to $4,500 for those on the East Coast.
But "they are going to get the money," she said. "It's just if they miss the certain period for which we have to submit it, then they have to wait until the next period and that means a delay of so many paychecks."
Adding to the frustration is the length of time it can take for recruits to get their first paycheck. Someone who starts work in August will have to wait until Sept. 20.
"It takes almost 30 days from the day it leaves our hands to get routed through the (Department of Accounting and General Services) system and be put on payroll," McFarlane said. Recruits are advised to bring an extra $3,000 to $5,000 to tide themselves over, a recommendation that Svensson says she never received.
The department is trying to speed up the process, McFarlane said. A new computer system will come on line in the next year, she said, and in the meantime, department staff are working hard to keep up.
"We are inundated," she said. "My staff is working seven days a week, they are here every Saturday and Sunday, they are here until 8 or 9 at night. They're dropping like flies."
And McFarlane believes the biggest challenge may still be on the horizon.
The contracts of the 138 Columbus teachers expire at the end of the 2003 school year, meaning those positions will have to be filled again.
And large numbers of teachers are reaching the end of their careers. Husted said the last estimate she received was that 38 percent of the state's teachers will be within retirement age in the next three years. Teachers also will be called on to step into the ranks of principals two-thirds of whom will be eligible to retire in the same time period.
As for Svensson, she was offered several jobs on her return to Seattle. She's getting a bonus for her master's degree and is earning nearly $500 more a month than she would have in Hilo.
She and her husband were warmed by the welcome they received at Hilo Union and in the wider community. Perhaps, one day, they will consider coming back, she said, but not until a contract is in place.