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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, June 8, 2001

Bonus clause stalls teachers' contract

By Alice Keesing
Advertiser Education Writer

Six weeks after the teachers' strike ended, their contract still has not been signed because the union, the Department of Education and the Board of Education all are at loggerheads over the ballooning cost of one clause in the contract.

At issue is a 3 percent bonus for teachers with master's degrees and professional diplomas. In an unprecedented move during negotiations, schools chief Paul LeMahieu offered to pay for the bonus with the department's own money.

But the Board of Education, which oversees department spending, is concerned that the original estimate of $6.7 million has now risen to a total of $11.4 million because more teachers may be eligible for the bonus than previously thought. The news comes as the department is cutting its budget because of a total $57 million shortfall for the next school year.

Even though the board approved the $11.4 million for the first year of the contract last night, one DOE official yesterday said there isn't enough money to pay the bonus for the second year. The Hawai'i State Teachers Association said it will sue if it doesn't get what it says was agreed on.

And while the disagreement remains unresolved, the contract that ended the three-week strike remains unsigned.

The situation is indicative of the department's disarray, said HSTA Executive Director Joan Husted, and appears to have arisen because nobody knew how many teachers would qualify for the bonus.

"The DOE didn't do their homework and now they're trying to reinterpret it," she said. "It's clear that one department doesn't know what the other department is doing — it borders on chaos."

The incident also drives another wedge between LeMahieu and the board, which has criticized him in the past for a lack of communication.

Board members are not only concerned about the rising cost of the bonus, but that LeMahieu may have exceeded his authority by earmarking the department's impact aid money to pay for it.

Impact aid is federal money that compensates school districts with a large military presence but can be used at the department's discretion.

LeMahieu said he ran the idea by the board leadership and they had the opportunity to bring it before the full board for approval. But board second vice chairwoman Karen Knudsen said members would have appreciated more discussion.

"We had already hoped to use the impact aid funds for other areas," said Knudsen, who heads the board's budget committee.

LeMahieu said he's as concerned as anyone at the price tag, which is more than 70 percent above projections. The $6.7 million figure came from the state Department of Budget and Finance and chief negotiator Davis Yogi, he said.

"If we cannot trust the state's chief negotiator to have accurate information in this matter or any other, then we've got big problems at the negotiating table," he said. LeMahieu is pushing for a bigger negotiating role for the Board of Education, which is the official employer of public school teachers.

Yogi shot back, saying the responsibility should lie with the superintendent.

"The department has the information on the number of people that have masters and professional certificates and diplomas," Yogi said. "It's incumbent on the superintendent to make sure he knows his numbers."

DOE Personnel Director Sandra McFarlane said the department did not have time during the harried pace of negotiations to calculate the number of eligible teachers.

Budget and Finance Director Neal Miyahira said his staff had to make an "educated guess" by working with HSTA staff, and that number was presented to DOE staff.

Yogi is now helping the department resolve the dispute with the union. Despite the fact that the board last night approved the $11.4 million plan, Yogi maintains the agreement was always for $6.7 million and the department shouldn't have to pay more.

And while LeMahieu indicated that the bonus would be paid for the two years, McFarlane said she has suggested to the union that it will cover only one year because of the increased cost. It is also still unresolved how many teachers will qualify for a bonus.

"We need to be very careful here," McFarlane said. "I don't want to shortchange anyone but at the same time I don't want to give the department's money away."