Lessons in cost of living

LIHUE — Hawaii schools were ranked the worst in the nation for teachers to work in, according to a recent study released by WalletHub.

Based on a 100-point scale, Hawaii schools were ranked last with a cumulative score of 22.22, which is a full 14.89 points behind the second-worst score of 37.11, belonging to West Virginia.

Hawaii ranks last largely because of a lack of job opportunities and low starting pay for teachers, according to findings.

“In terms of numbers, Hawaii has the lowest annual starting salary for teachers (adjusted for cost of living) at just above $24,000 and the lowest median salary (again, adjusted for cost of living) at $34,000 per year,” according to Jill Gonzalez, an analyst at WalletHub.

Heidi Alvarez, a second-year teacher at Waimea Canyon Middle School, moved to the Garden Isle after living in Northern California, where the cost of living is similar to that of Kauai.

She doesn’t worry about the expenses that plague teachers in Hawaii. Furthermore, she wouldn’t even consider another job on the Mainland that would offer better pay with a lower cost of living.

“I’m staying here. I’m actually really happy here,” Alvarez said. “This is my place. I would like to see the kids here to have an opportunity to possibly go to the Mainland and bring back what they learn back to here. The key to working as a teacher here is that you just have to find a balance, like with any other job. In order to do the job, you have to understand everything that goes into it.”

Lindsay Chambers, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education’s Communications and Community Affairs Office, says that while it can’t be argued that Hawaii’s cost of living expenses are a major factor in a teacher’s salary, it’s important to note that Hawaii teachers have higher starting salaries.

“Hawaii teachers have higher starting minimum salaries, not factoring cost of living, than the other states on the Mainland,” Chambers said.

According to the DOE’s gross annual salary schedule, teachers with a bachelor’s degree and a SATEP (State Approved Teacher Education Program) certificate are set to make $46,601 for the 2016-17 school year.

“We have seen a drop in new teacher turnover,” Chambers said. “We try to implement support for new teachers and so far, we’ve seen a 10 percent drop since 2002 in teacher turnover.”

According to the Study of Hawaii’s Compensation System conducted by the DOE in 2014, teachers in Hawaii make an average of 4 percent less than Mainland teachers do.

The 2014 study by the DOE worked with the Hawaii State Teacher’s Association, but HSTA President Corey Rosenlee disputes the study, citing multiple errors associated with the data.

“The study was ridiculous,” Rosenlee said. “The study compared Hawaii school districts to districts with similar size, but didn’t compare the cost of living.”

HSTA did some research of its own, Rosenlee said, and found that starting teacher salaries in Hawaii are about $4,000 less than districts with similar costs of living.

“Average teacher salaries in Hawaii are about $15,000 to $20,000 lower than teaching positions on the Mainland,” Rosenlee said.

Greg Anderson, a business teacher at Kauai High School for the past three years, understands the struggle of teachers in the state who have a difficult time staying afloat.

“I pay three times the amount here for a rinky-dink apartment than a house I lived in when I was in Wisconsin that was twice the size,” Anderson said. “I think money helps keep the teachers in the profession, but I know a bunch of teachers who work a second job. Can you imagine getting done (with teaching) at 3 p.m. and then go work another job? There’s just a lot of work and time into teaching.”

Anderson pointed out that a teacher’s work day isn’t over once the final class bell rings in the afternoon.

Lesson plans, homework assignments and tests still need to be graded, but, according to Anderson, that isn’t even the hardest part.

“In the 1990s, I taught in Wisconsin. It was a small school. We didn’t have all these requirements we have now — we just taught. Now? We’re being told what to do in 58 different directions and 57 of them have nothing to do with teaching,” Anderson said.

Part of the challenge for Anderson is that he needs time to create lesson plans and develop creative ways to get the point across in class, just like any teacher does. But for new teachers or teachers who move to Kauai from the Mainland, the transition is more challenging than any lesson plan a teacher could muster.

“When we do bring teachers over from the Mainland, the transition is very hard,” he said. “When I first moved here, I was in a hotel for three weeks. The frustration level can be so high that I know some teachers who turned around and left after a few weeks because they couldn’t find a place to live.”

Anderson and Rosenlee agree that the cost of living in Hawaii is a daunting reality facing the state’s educators, and that for entry-level teachers, living independently is nearly impossible.

“Honestly, I don’t know how a new teacher could make it in Hawaii without living at home or not having roommates; it’s tough,” Anderson said. “I know a lot of teachers here, newer teachers, who have second jobs just to survive day-to-day. None of them have a second job just so that they can drive around in a Tesla. If you’re entry-level right out of the gate, after you pay taxes there just isn’t enough left.”

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