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New Director of Education discusses major issues facing DOE

One of the major issues articulated by Director of Education Vaitinasa Dr. Salu Hunkin Finau during her confirmation hearing before the House Committee on Education and Scholarships on Wednesday involved teacher reclassification and incentives.The point was raised by Rep. Maugaoalii Leapai Tusipa Anoai who wanted Vaitinasa to elaborate further on the subject. An information packet handed out to House committee members that day stated that the Department of Education is losing its most highly qualified teachers at an alarming rate due to the inflated cost of living and inadequate salaries. In response, DOE is revising not only the education expectations for teachers, but also the evaluation system to fairly assess teacher performance, and the teacher classification system to provide our most effective teachers with adequate salaries so that they are willing to remain in the classroom. “It is imperative that we retain these teachers if we are to improve the educational achievement of our students,” the pamphlet notes.According to Vaitinasa, there are plenty of qualified teachers, some of whom have left DOE to find jobs in other fields because of salary issues. According to information distributed to lawmakers, entry level teacher’s salaries are in range with the degree the teacher had completed when entering the DOE system. They are eligible for reclassifications as they complete additional degrees and/or pass the PRAXIS. Currently, a teacher with an AA degree starts off making $11,696 a year, while teachers with bachelor degrees have a starting annual salary of $19,000.Teachers with bachelor degrees who have passed the PRAXIS have a starting salary of $25,000 a year, while those holding a masters degree start off at $26,000 annually.“Looking at the numbers, the salary for teachers is just not enough, and does not coincide with the hard work and college degrees involved,” Vaitinasa said. “Talofa e I nai faiaoga,” (Poor teachers) she added, explaining that teachers barely get paid enough and yet, they still have to fork money out of pocket to buy needed supplies and materials required to carry out their jobs.“In the U.S., everything teachers need are supplied by the schools so teachers don’t have to worry about anything except performing their jobs,” Vaitinasa explained. She added that in Saipan, the starting salary for a teacher with a bachelors degree is $30,000 a year. “If this was the kind of money we offer to our local teachers, there would be no reason why qualified teachers would jump ship and look for jobs in other fields.”Vaitinasa said there are highly qualified teachers who are currently working in other areas of the government because the salary is higher. “I thank the government for hiring them but we need these teachers in the classroom,” she said.Vaitinasa said she is willing to work with the Fono on ways to address this issue, saying the salaries for teachers should be equal to the degree they hold and the cost of living.In addition to teacher reclassification and incentives, other major issues in DOE include teacher quality and school facilities. Teacher quality is ensuring that the teachers have the minimum qualifications to teach the curriculum standards to the children to meet the mission and vision of the Department of Education in order to respond to the needs of the students, as well as the community.As for school facilities, DOE only has $500,000 in this year’s budget to cover all maintenance and transportation, non-personnel costs. Fuel cost for buses alone is over $100,000 annually, and DOE has exhausted the entire maintenance budget within the first quarter of the fiscal year. Meanwhile, according to information from DOE, there are schools in need of major maintenance work, but there are no funds to carry them out. Annual revenue under the 1% law has been approximately $1.5 million a year, and “we need every dollar of this tax to help renovate and maintain schools and classrooms,” said the new DOE director.She explained that the US has property tax allocated specifically for schools but locally, the tax earmarked for use by the DOE has been used for other things and the DOE needs help. She said there are different ways to address the issue and “if we can just get the cents that the DOE is entitled to, it would surely help.”As of January 18, 2013 the Department of Education had a total of 4,174 students in high school, 10,986 in elementary schools, and 1,286 in ECE.Over 95.7% of the total student population is Samoan however, student composition is changing. Recent trends in immigration show an increase in residents from Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Philippines, and other Asian countries. The ASDOE employs over 1,906 people who serve in 6 secondary schools, 22 elementary schools, and 54 ECE centers. The Department has 996 school-level staff including teachers, principals, counselors, librarians, and volunteers from the World Teach organization. A total of 43% of the teachers hold a bachelors degree or higher, and another 26% hold an AA degree. In the past three years, the number of teachers with degrees have increased from 46% to 69%, thanks in part to the ASDOE’s Cohort programs with the American Samoa Community College and the University of Hawaii - Manoa which provide the opportunities for local teachers to gain more education.