VAITINASA DR. SALU HUNKIN FINAU CONFIRMED AS DOE DIRECTOR
Vaitinasa Dr. Salu Hunkin Finau, former president of the American Samoa Community College, was Wednesday confirmed as new Department of Education director by the Senate — in a 14-2 vote, and the House in a vote of 16-1.
Vaitinasa, former candidate for governor in the 2012 general election, holds a doctorate in education, and is the first cabinet appointee of the Lolo administration to be fully endorsed by the Fono. The final vote came after both the Senate and House committees held confirmation hearings in their respective chambers.
SENATE CONFIRMATION HEARING
Vaitinasa appeared Wednesday morning before the Senate Education Committee for her confirmation and informed senators the important role this department plays in the future of American Samoa and that is to “educate our students”.
And educating American Samoa’s future leaders is a cooperative effort of everyone, including the DOE, the Fono, village leaders and families, she said and noted that there is a saying, “It takes a village to educate a child”.
Committee chairman Sen. Faumuina Tagisiaali’i gave each senator who attended the hearing, a chance to ask questions or make suggestions or recommendations for the nominee to consider. Many of the senators used the opportunity to acknowledge that the nominee is well educated and fully qualified for the post, and urged her to do right by the students of American Samoa if confirmed by the Legislature.
One of the questions Vaitinasa answered in detail, came from Sen. Laolagi F.S. Vaeao, who based his questions on an information sheet about DOE that was handed out to senators. He wanted to know additional information about the more than $42 million for DOE’s FY 2013 budget as well as the cost of educating a student in the territory.
Of the total budget, Vaitinasa said $21 million goes towards payroll for teachers only, and she reminded the senators that local teacher’s salaries are lower than their counterparts in other territories, especially teachers who hold degrees.
For example, an AA degree gets paid $11,000 and Bachelor degree holders are paid $19,000 annually. Compare that to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, where a BA degree gets $35,000 a year, she said and noted that DOE is working on a new reclassification of all teachers — which is one of the mandates of the governor — and the proposed salary for an AA degree holder is $18,000, and higher for the other degree categories.
For educating a child, she said, the average costs for American Samoa is $4,600 a year and 31% of the budget to educate a student comes from local funds while the balance is from federal grants.
However, in the U.S. the average costs are higher and in other U.S. states and jurisdictions, they don’t depend much on federal grants for educating a student, but use their own local revenues.
For example in some states, it’s property taxes that fund education.
“So we need more local revenues to fund the education of our students in American Samoa,” she said, adding that DOE must depend on local revenues as no one knows how long federal grants will last heading into the future.
Gaoteote, who was the last one to ask a question, asked Vaitinasa as to her top goal to improve the education system in the territory, to which she again pointed to the need for “a portion of the revenue”, which is about one-cent in excise gasoline tax, to continue to be provided to DOE, to ensure sufficient local funding.
Of interest was Sen. Tuiasina S. Esera’s comment, who claimed that the governor’s decision was not easy in deciding Vaitinasa as DOE director, because there were about ten applicants for the job.
HOUSE CONFIRMATION HEARING
Vaitinasa’s confirmation hearing lasted about 50 minutes, where she fielded a range of questions. She appeared Wednesday morning before the House Committee on Education and Scholarships, chaired by Rep. Vaetasi Tuumolimoli S. Moliga.
In her opening remarks, Vaitinasa said the vision of DOE is "for all our children to achieve success locally and abroad; to understand the Samoan language and culture, and to be proud of their heritage, while appreciating the cultural diversity of American Samoa."
Rep. Faimealelei Anthony Allen asked Vaitinasa to explain her personal feelings about teacher education in the territory. "The single most important factor in the academic achievement of a student is the teacher," Vaitinasa said. She explained that educating of local teachers is very important and that is why they are anticipating what the Senior Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) has to say when they visit the territory in March to review and hopefully approve a bachelor’s program to be offered at the American Samoa Community College.
Vaitinasa explained that after a teacher receives their AA degree, they are encouraged to participate in the University of Hawaii - COHORT program which offers bachelor degrees in different fields of education. She said it is their goal to establish a local bachelor degree program so teachers won't have to travel off island and be separated from their families.
She said the main concern for WASC is the instability of funding for the proposed program, as the organization does not want to issue its stamp of approval and then not long afterwards, hear that the program has been discontinued due to the lack of funding.
Currently, local teachers can obtain bachelor, masters and even doctorate degrees from the UH Cohort program and other schools like San Diego State University. Rep. Faimealelei urged Vaitinasa not to discontinue its relationship with these programs until such time that the proposed 4-year degree program at the ASCC is up and running.
The Aua faipule also told Vaitinasa that school principals are sometimes hesitant to voice their complaints and opinions to the DOE main office for fear of reprisal. "Principals should be given the power to run the schools and DOE needs to give them that authority.”
He concluded by telling Vaitinasa that there are schools in which the teachers are highly educated and qualified and yet, the students are lagging.
Rep. Vui Florence Vaili Saulo praised Vaitinasa on her qualifications, academic background, and achievements, and said what she is most proud of is the fact that Vaitinasa is a woman.
Later this week, Samoa News will report further on Vaitinasa’s comments during the Senate and House hearings, including the use of Samoan language in early elementary level as a teaching method; the problem with high school seniors entering college; and, the role of DOE and teen pregnancy.
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