EXCLUSIVE: Ethics ruling could put public school trips in jeopardy

EXCLUSIVE: Ethics ruling could put public school trips in jeopardy
Published: Apr. 2, 2015 at 8:28 PM HST|Updated: Apr. 2, 2015 at 9:33 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Trips by hundreds and perhaps thousands of Hawaii public school students could be in jeopardy after the state Ethics Commission said teachers are breaking the ethics law by accepting free trips from travel companies.

The Department of Education asked for guidance from the Ethics Commission on a trip to Washington, D.C. and New York City taken by about 50 eighth graders from King Intermediate School in Kaneohe. Five school employees, including three teachers, traveled for free and had their trips paid for by the travel company Education First Explore America. The school staff served as chaperones for the trip, which cost students about $2,600 and parents about $2,900.

"Notwithstanding the 'educational benefit' of the trip …" an Ethics Commission lawyer said the free trips violated the ethics code because "…we believe there is a reasonable inference that the free travel and other related benefits are offered to the teachers to 'influence' their official actions or as a 'reward' for their official actions."

"These are not really gifts," said Joan Lewis, vice president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, the union that represents public school teachers.

Lewis said public school teachers routinely have their trips paid for by travel companies but teachers use their own vacation time to travel, aren't paid a salary on the trips and have to oversee students in other cities and countries.

"Our teachers are required to chaperone our students for 24 hours for as long as the trip lasts. They are required to help make all of the reservations, they are required to help do the fundraising," Lewis said.

State Schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said she's worried about the situation.

"Schools don't have the funding now to be able to pay for trips for their teachers, in a lot of situations," Matayoshi said.

She said her administration is trying to figure out what to do next.

"If we don't find a right way to do this, that the trips will go down in number dramatically, the number of students who have this opportunity will dwindle," Matayoshi said.

Some teachers and band leaders have already put plans for future trips on hold because of the Ethics Commission guidance which was issued on Tuesday.

"Because of this whole thing that came down from the Ethics Commission, I think many teachers have put everything on hold, as far as traveling," said Daryl Agena, Kapolei High School's band director.

Agena said he traveled for free on the band's trip during the 2014 spring break to California, when the 80-member band performed at Disneyland and visited various sites around Los Angeles.

Agena said he and other teachers are not willing to shell out their own money for a working trip.

"I can see myself paying for a personal trip to take my family somewhere rather than paying to go on a trip to take 80 students on a band trip," Agena said.

It's not practical for non-public school employees to chaperone trips, Lewis said, because very often they are subject-matter teachers.  For instance, Spanish teachers escort students to Spain.  Band directors accompany and direct bands that perform on the road.  History and civics teachers take classes to Washington, D.C.

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