Hawaii lawmakers look for ways to ease school furlough impact
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Education Writer
The growing discontent of parents and the community over the recent decision to furlough teachers on 17 Fridays this school year has caught the attention of state lawmakers.
At a joint hearing of the state House and Senate Education Committees yesterday, lawmakers questioned education officials about ways schools could add instructional days back to the calendar.
One suggestion was converting teacher planning and professional development days to instructional days — which could reduce "Furlough Fridays" by as much as six.
Education and union officials also told Legislators they'd be willing to reopen the Hawaii State Teachers Association contract and reduce the furlough days if lawmakers were to come up with more money for schools.
"There is a growing sentiment that this is something we should seriously consider," said Rep. Roy Takumi, chairman of the House Education Committee. "There are options that we could exercise that I would be open to."
The state Department of Education faced $227 million in cuts mandated by Gov. Linda Lingle this year, some $117 million of which is being taken in school employee furloughs and other labor savings.
Takumi, D-36th (Pearl City, Momilani, Pacific Palisades), said options for reducing the number of furlough days include a modest increase in the general excise tax or using a portion of the Hurricane Relief Fund.
However, he noted there is strong resistance to calling a special session of the state Legislature because of Lingle's opposition to both tax increases or raiding of special funds.
Yesterday's joint hearing was the first opportunity lawmakers had to officially discuss furloughs of public school teachers. HSTA members on Sept. 22 ratified a contract that called for 17 days of furloughs, equal to a 7.9 percent pay cut.
The furloughs are to be taken over a series of Fridays, starting Oct. 23. The furloughs will reduce the school year to 163 instructional days, which will likely leave Hawai'i with the shortest school year in the country.
Sen. Norman Sakamoto, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, D-15th (Waimalu, Airport, Salt Lake), said officials should speed up the process for approving school requests to convert their six teacher planning days to instruction days.
"The community is frustrated that it takes so long to get a board approval," Sakamoto said.
Hamamoto said school administrators have been asked to submit requests to swap out planning days for instructional days by Oct. 22. She also said the HSTA and board members have agreed to an expedited process.
The state Board of Education and the HSTA would have to agree to those requests, since they are waivers from terms of the collectively bargained teachers contract. Approvals would be made within a week.
Meanwhile, Rep. Lynn Finnegan, R-32nd (Lower Pearlridge, 'Aiea, Halawa), asked education officials for an accounting of programs and state and district level positions that were cut from the DOE budget.
"At the school level, principals as well as teachers feel that before you actually went to the furlough option that there were other things that could have been looked at," Finnegan said.
Hamamoto pointed out that central administration of the state Department of Education makes up just 5 percent of the DOE budget.
"Rep. Finnegan, we looked at all the administrative services and if we shut down the entire Department of Education back office, all of the central services, everything, that still would not have made up for the debt in our restriction," Hamamoto said.
Hamamoto pointed out that the DOE had cut some 260 state level positions and dozens of complex and district level programs.
Hamamoto asked the lawmakers why they cut funds to the schools and then criticize the schools for cutting programs.
"Maybe I should be asking why you couldn't have given us the money to begin with so we wouldn't have had to cut programs," Hamamoto said.
Lingle, speaking to reporters at the state Capitol on Tuesday, said she hoped teachers would use noninstruction days as furlough days. "I think so, and hopefully they'll reach that conclusion as well," she said.
Lingle does not have the power to furlough or lay off workers at the state Department of Education and University of Hawai'i, which are governed by independent boards. The governor instead imposed 14 percent spending restrictions on the department and university, and the DOE and UH have had to come up with the savings, partly though labor agreements with the unions.
"They were free to make up that 14 percent the way they thought was best for operating their system," she said. "And these are choices that they've made."
Lingle said she thinks "everyone would agree that the fewer days out of school for the children, the better."
Derrick DePledge contributed to this report.