Teacher talks to resume; pay remains only hangup
By Johnny Brannon and Alice Keesing
Advertiser Education Writer
Teacher union and state negotiators are set to return to the bargaining table this afternoon in another attempt to end the strike that has crippled Hawai'i's public education system.
The afternoon negotiations will follow a marathon session that ended at 2 a.m. today.
"We're going to be back, so that's a good sign," said Hawai'i State Teachers Association executive director Joan Husted early this morning.
She declined to predict whether the strike that has hobbled the state's public education system for 15 days would end today or Friday.
"Both parties are going to work to get it settled as soon as possible," Husted said. "I think we can get a settlement if both parties stay working at it."
Husted said she believed Tuesday's settlement of the University of Hawai'i faculty strike had helped by allowing state negotiator Davis Yogi to focus on the public school teachers strike.
Her union's deal with the state to set aside the issue of health benefits until the strike is resolved has also helped negotiations, Husted said.
"There's only one issue left, salaries, so that's what we're talking about," she said. Negotiations are to resume at 2 p.m. at the Federal Building.
Indications are that the teachers' strike will be tougher to settle than the university walkout.
The two sides met last night with a federal mediator, discussing some new issues that schools chief Paul LeMahieu called "promising."
But as more than 250 schools stay closed for the second full week, both sides say they remain far apart on money.
The teachers demand for a wage offer beyond what other public employee unions have received is fueled in part by anger that has been simmering since the 1997 contract settlement and rising expectations of Hawai'i's education system.
At the same time, the governor is standing firm, saying he wants money left over from pay raises so he can breath life into social welfare programs that were cut during the state's economic hard times.
"The governor has indicated this is going to be very tough to solve," said Husted as she headed into talks yesterday. "I think our issues are tougher than some of the issues that (the University of Hawai'i Professional Assembly) faced."
For one thing, the state and UHPA were never that far apart on what they wanted. When university professors walked off the job two weeks ago, their union and the state were just 2 percent apart.
The state and public teachers union, however, were divided by at least 6 percent, or $100 million.
"The expectations are high," Husted said.
One of the major sticking points continues to be the teachers' call for retroactive pay for the two years they have worked without a contract. Their contract expired in January 1999 and was later extended to June 2000.
Teachers want pay increases for all four years of the contract under negotiation. The state is offering money for only the last two years, 2002 and 2003.
The two sides also have been at odds over how to structure merit pay. The state has offered step increases for professional development credits. And while the union supports that push for accountability, it says many of the professional development classes are not yet available and it also wants teachers rewarded for years of experience.
Husted believes the emotions behind the strike have been building since the last contract settlement in 1997.
At that time, teachers came within hours of striking before agreeing to a 17 percent raise in exchange for seven extra working days a settlement that some teachers criticized at the time.
Husted said irritation between the two sides was never resolved after those negotiations.
"The 1997 strike is happening now," Husted said. "I think there's been lots of residual anger about how people believe they were treated. The workload got greater ... and there were comments being made by public officials about Hawai'i's public school system being so poor."
In addition, teachers expectations for a settlement are fueled by a sweeping reform of the education system that has increased their workloads.
"That has to be recognized," LeMahieu said. "Principals, teachers put in long hours previously and along comes a reform-minded superintendent with a mission of sorts and suddenly there's even more to do, and they've stepped up and done it. I think what that has done is increase the hunger for recognition."
Judge may intervene
Meanwhile, with the two sides apparently remaining in deadlock, many say it could be a federal judge who eventually breaks the strike. U.S. District Judge David Ezra last week warned that he will intervene if the strike is not settled by the end of this week.
Ezra has the authority to step in because of the Felix consent decree, which orders the state to improve services to children with special needs by December. Jeffrey Portnoy, the special master in the case, visited both parties during negotiations yesterday to reiterate the judge's position.
Attorneys in the Felix case this week filed a motion asking Ezra to appoint a special master to take over the education system and restore special education services that have been cut off during the strike.
The strike probably has made it impossible for the state to meet the December deadline, said Ivor Groves, the court-appointed monitor who supervises the state's progress in the Felix case.
"There's just no wiggle room to lose two weeks," Groves said.
Those close to negotiations are anticipating Ezra may take action early next week if there is no resolution at the bargaining table, although it is unclear exactly what he would do.