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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 10:20 a.m. Wednesday, April 18, 2001

Felix special master to join teacher talks

By Alice Keesing and Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Staff Writers

When negotiators for the state and striking teachers go back to the bargaining table today they will be joined by the special master in the Felix consent decree as well as a federal mediator.

The judge who wrote the Felix consent decree, a federal court order that spells out how the state must educate students with special needs, has threatened to step in if the strike is not resolved by the end of this week.

The strike enters its 14th day today with no indications there has been any progress in resolving the walkout.

The settlement of the University of Hawaii'i's faculty contract last night is one good sign for negotiations, Hawai'i State Teachers Association Executive Director Joan Husted said today.

"(The state's chief negotiator) has us to focus on now so hopefully all his time, attention and effort is going to go into working with us," she said. Husted said she is willing to meet "well into the evening," but she and state officials have stressed that the outstanding issues remain difficult to resolve.

Gov. Ben Cayetano said yesterday the two sides remain far apart on some issues and indicated that the strike could run into its third week.

When asked about U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye's prediction that the strike would be wrapped up by the weekend, Cayetano responded, "There's an outside chance, but I think that may be a bit optimistic."

The Hawai'i State Teachers Association, however, believes the threat of federal court intervention will force the state to settle.

U.S. District Judge David Ezra has said he will step in if the strike does not end this week. Under the Felix decreee, he has the authority to order teachers back to work.

The Felix case was brought about by parents seeking to improve the state's treatment of special-needs children. The strike has seriously damaged those efforts, say attorneys in the Felix case, who yesterday filed a motion asking the judge to appoint a master to take over the education system.

Cayetano described Ezra's statements as a "credible threat" that "you can't dismiss."

"But I would hope that Judge Ezra wouldn't do it," he said. "I mean, after all, this is a sovereign state. We don't need the federal court to come in and say, 'This is how you should do things.' "

Husted said the state can't afford to ignore Ezra's threats.

"As an attorney, (Cayetano) is well aware of what the power of the court is," she said. "And he may argue until he's blue in the face state's rights versus civil rights, but he's not going to prevail in it. And I think Ben knows that.

"If the state decides that Friday, when Judge Ezra returns to the bench, is a make or break day for them, we could settle within 24 hours. There aren't that many issues. Basically, you're talking salary and everyone has talked every concept known to man. We can get it ratified in 24 hours, and the picket lines will come down."

However, the state has not put any more money on the table, and the union has said there will be no agreement without it. The two sides were last reported to be about $100 million apart.

Both sides do agree — although for different reasons — that a settlement with the university professors could help speed things up.

For Cayetano, the settlement with the University of Hawai'i Professional Assembly establishes a level of expectation for pay raises that he expects HSTA to follow.

The United Public Workers received an 11 percent package, HGEA won an arbitrated settlement of 14 percent, and UHPA received 12 percent.

HSTA President Karen Ginoza said that is not enough.

"Again, our argument goes back to we need wages that are competitive nationally, and it's very important we prepare for the shortage of teachers that's looming in the future," she said.

For the union, the settlement with UHPA will free up time for the state's chief negotiator, Davis Yogi, who has been juggling talks with public employee unions this week and unable to give HSTA officials the time they want to negotiate.

"If they settle or are close to settlement, I would expect Davis' activity to accelerate here," Husted said before the UHPA settlement was finalized. "I can't believe the governor of this state would sit there and say, 'You guys can sit out there for a little bit longer,' because with the strength on the lines, they're not going to find anyone to teach school."

Teachers continue to demonstrate their solidarity with less than 1 percent reporting to work.

The union said 129 teachers crossed the line yesterday, just two more than crossed on the first day of the strike.

But the strike also is reaching a critical point for teachers, who will miss their first paycheck Friday. Many teachers also are running out of time to get the number of days they need to clear probation. And the retirement benefits of senior teachers will soon be affected.

Husted said the union is committed to getting probationary teachers credited for a full semester in the settlement and is working on the retirement issue.

Cayetano said he is impressed by the teachers' solidarity.

"But that won't change the fiscal situation," he said. "We could fund everything they all want. We just have to flush the rest of the people down the toilet, and that's what this is all about: being balanced."

But House Democratic leaders yesterday repeated their willingness to find the money to pay for union raises.

The lawmakers yesterday called on the governor and the teachers' union to quickly reach settlements.

"Whatever the settlement is, then the burden is on us to find the funds to do it, but put that burden on us," said House Higher Education Committee Chairman Roy Takumi, D-36th (Pearl City, Waipahu).

"Every day teachers get a little more demoralized, and if the intention of the governor is to ... break the spirits of our educators then we can't support it," said House Majority Whip Brian Schatz.

Staff Writer Lynda Arakawa contributed to this report.