Some teachers forego retirement following wage fix

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Lahainaluna High School’s Ashley Olson, an educator for nearly three decades, is one of the teachers who’s deciding not to retire thanks to state funding that aims to eliminate wage compression. Photos courtesy of HSTA

Lahainaluna High School teacher Ashley Olson was slowly preparing for retirement until news broke that salary compression for experienced educators would end, a day that many long-standing teachers didn’t think would come.

Last month, Gov. David Ige signed into law the state budget that includes more than $164 million to end salary compression for experienced educators, fund shortage differentials and restore paid job-embedded professional development for all teachers, according to the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which represents about 13,500 Hawaii public school teachers. The union held a virtual news conference Monday with some teachers who had decided to forego retirement thanks to the funding.

“I feel like we keep repeating that, ‘it’s such a big deal, it’s such a big deal,’ but it really is such a big deal,” said Olson, whose positions have included English Language Learners coordinator, National Honor Society adviser, state and federal compliance coordinator and school community council chair.“This past school year, I really started to back away from some of the things I do to help with that transition.”

Instead of retiring in 2024, the 28-year educator now looks forward to continuing her teaching career, helping the Lunas athletic director, assisting the new National Honor Society adviser and supporting the school community council and students.

“I think it means for a lot of teachers that maybe they can give up their second job, depending on what they’re earning right now, and most teachers being who they are, means that the extra time is going to get poured back into their students,” said Olson, who had to supplement her salary with a part-time gig at Starbucks. “It also means that Lahainaluna High School will not lose my institutional knowledge, my love of the school community and my expertise for a little while longer.”

Melissa Padilla, a longtime Campbell High School teacher, said that wage compression has made it “even harder to convince people to stay in the profession.”

Wage compression develops over time and refers to when there is little difference in pay between employees regardless of years of service, knowledge and skills.

The fix not only positively impacts teacher salaries and pay scale schedules, some of which were frozen for 10 years, but also improves social security earnings, retirement and state pension, Olson said.

Compression, along with the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past few years, makes it “even harder to convince people to stay in the profession,” said 30-year Campbell High School teacher Melissa Padilla, who has had to supplement her income with side jobs to afford to live in the state.

Despite decades of service, teachers still have not reached the top of the pay scale. Padilla said that this bill now shows that incoming and long-standing teachers are valued, respected and recognized for their experience and time committed to the schools.

“It lifts some of that weight off of my shoulders and when I do retire, I won’t feel so stressed about can I stay in Hawaii and can I live in Hawaii,” she said.

Since last month, veteran educators have been making the decision to “unretire” just as the new state Department of Education school year begins this week, including Mike Hino, who’s in his 25th year as an eighth grade social studies teacher at Molokai High School.

Hino had plans to retire in June. His paperwork was submitted, but he then had to hurry and retract his retirement requests after being notified of the additional state funding and fixes, which in turn will move him up five steps on the pay scale.

He noted how his quality life will improve, which will impact the students and faculty around him.

“I changed my plans to retire because correcting compression, for me, it sent the message that experience does matter and it’s valued,” Hino said.“Stress level has dropped because I don’t have to worry about if I can afford certain things, or picking and choosing and sacrificing certain things. Both of those are needed, but I’m looking forward to not having to worry about that so much and hopefully, that ease in stress will translate into the classroom, so I can be more patient and tolerant and understanding and passionate as I once was.”

Working on a small campus like Molokai, many teachers are involved in additional programs and initiatives outside of their teaching duties to help with school operations. Thus, being able to hold onto teachers that have “a sense of how to balance all of these initiatives in and out of the classroom does all make a difference,” he added.

Hino also decided to stay for the middle school keiki and to continue offering his unique academic and management plans.

“What I look forward to in the next few years instead of retirement, I’m hoping that this one-time correction will become permanent for all my colleagues — young and seasoned teachers,” he added.

Last school year’s retirements increased nearly 33 percent from the year before due to COVID-19, said HSTA president Osa Tui, Jr.

“Over the years, when the state was low on funds, veteran teachers were denied even small raises, so thousands of them were stuck in the middle of the salary scale,” Tui said. “We’re hoping that whatever the numbers are, as we go into this year, that retirements will be much, much less because every teacher that retires is just another that has to be replaced. Right now, there are not enough students going into teaching, so we hope that some of our seasoned educators will stick around and inspire some of our students here at home to go into the profession.”

The bill will increase the salaries of nearly 9,000 Hawaii educators from anywhere between $7,700 to $26,000, depending on their years of experience, according to HSTA. This would help to keep veteran educators staffed and incentivize new teachers to apply for jobs.

“We are so grateful to the legislative leaders for making sure that this happened,” said Tui, adding that this is an investment into the local economy as well as benefits students statewide who will get quality education.

It also addresses shortages of between $3,000 and $10,000 a year for more than 4,000 special education classroom and Hawaiian language immersion teachers, as well as those who teach at schools that are challenging to staff due its remote locations.

Specifically, the budget allotted $130 million to address compression via repricing and restoration of 21 hours of job-embedded professional development — $121.7 million for DOE and $8.3 million for charter schools.

The remaining $34.5 million — $32.5 million for DOE and $2 million for charter schools — will address shortage differentials for teachers in hard-to-staff geographic areas, special education and Hawaiian language immersion.

More information on whether a teacher qualifies, how much they will receive and when they will see larger paychecks will be released soon.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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