HILO — A number of teachers, along with some students and parents, lined sidewalks in front of Hilo High and Hilo Intermediate schools early Tuesday morning.
Educators across the state held a “walk-in” to urge support for a constitutional amendment that aims to increase funding for public education, and in Hilo, about 20 people waved signs as morning commuters made their down Waianuenue Avenue.
Some drivers honked their horns as they passed. Others waved.
Matthew Yarberry, a world history teacher at Hilo High, said he considered Tuesday a dry run for an official walk-in on Oct. 23, “when we’re going to do this en masse.”
Yarberry said the group on Tuesday was “trying to raise awareness about voting in November on the constitutional amendment.”
The ballot measure will ask voters in November: “Shall the legislature be authorized to establish, as provided by law, a surcharge on investment real property to be used to support public education.”
Hawaii’s constitution currently provides that “all functions, powers and duties relating to the taxation of real property shall be exercised exclusively by the counties … .”
If the amendment passes, the constitution would be appended to allow the Legislature to establish a surcharge on investment real property. The constitution would be further amended to read, “Funding of public education shall be determined by the Legislature; provided that revenues derived from a surcharge on investment real property pursuant to section 3 of article VIII shall be used to support public education.”
The change, however, leaves it up to a future Legislature to set the amount of the surcharge, define what constitutes “investment real property,” and decide what would qualify to “support public education.”
Proponents of the constitutional amendment have argued schools in Hawaii are not properly funded — that, when adjusted for the cost of living, teachers are the lowest paid in the nation, and the state is amongst the lowest in per-pupil spending. They contend that the measure will only impact second homes over $1 million.
Opponents of the measure, however, have said the amendment’s wording is vague and won’t limit the Legislature’s taxing authority only to second homes valued over $1 million, nor does it guarantee that the money would get to the state Department of Education, students, teachers or classrooms.
Language allowing the Legislature to establish a surcharge on residential investment properties valued at more than $1 million, along with visitor accommodations, was included in an early draft of Senate Bill 2922, but not in the final version of the bill.
“This is about fairness for the people and for the kids, our keiki,” Yarberry said of the measure. “Our keiki deserve this.”
Mireille Ellsworth, an English and acting teacher at Waiakea High School, joined her fellow educators Tuesday before work.
“It’s amazing how many people don’t know about it,” said Ellsworth. “We’re really concerned about the fact that if people leave it blank, it’s going to be a ‘no’ vote. So we really want to get that word out.”
Special education teacher Liz Laliberte said it was important to be out Tuesday because schools have been “chronically underfunded for many years.”
“The state of Hawaii is losing teachers en masse, and we’re desperate to fill about 1,000 teaching positions, and it’s because our schools aren’t funded properly,” she said. “I think this is a huge opportunity for us as a state to meet that budget shortfall in a way that doesn’t harm the lowest-earning population of the state. We’re asking people who can afford to pay a little bit more every year to contribute back to the public education system, which is going to benefit everybody.”
Parent Jennifer Kagiwada also showed her solidarity, holding a sign in support of the measure Tuesday alongside teachers.
“We’ve been trying for years to get more funding for public schools, and this is the first time the people get a chance to vote on it,” she said. “This is it. This is our chance. If we don’t do this now, I don’t see what’s going to be done to support funding for education.”
With a daughter in 10th grade at Hilo High and a son in eighth grade at Hilo Intermediate, Kagiwada said she is an advocate of public education and supports the teachers and schools.
“I heard last night that they were going to be doing this, and I felt like I could at least come out here and stand out here for 30 minutes and support them,” she said.
Hilo attorney Lincoln Ashida, who sits on the board of both the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Hawaii — two groups that oppose the ballot measure — said, however, the proposed constitutional amendment would affect everyone who owns property in Hawaii.
As worded, the measure applies to any investment property, so, “if you own anything besides your home, it’s fair game, and it’s taxable,” he said.
“We fully support public education and teachers. That’s not the issue here. The issue is this is a bad bill, a bad proposal,” Ashida said. Support for education “can come via other means, other legislation that is much better crafted than this particular measure.”
A Hawaii State Teachers Association spokesman said walk-ins will be held at more schools around the state on Oct. 16, with additional schools perhaps participating on another date after that.
Email Stephanie Salmons at email@example.com.