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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 28, 2009

All parties must find way past school crisis

By David Shapiro

Often, the best way to get a fresh view of how you're doing is to see yourself through the eyes of others.

With the Internet, it's easy to keep up with how others look at Hawaii and the picture isn't pretty in the case of the state's decision to save money with teacher furloughs that close public schools 17 Fridays a year, reducing instruction to a national-low 163 days.

Newspapers and broadcast outlets across the United States, Europe, Asia and the Pacific took note that Hawaii is alone among the states in singling out schoolchildren for special punishment in the national economic crisis.

The tone of the accounts was mostly incredulous that we'd cut class time by 10 percent when Hawaii students already rank near the bottom of national achievement tests and when President Obama, who once attended a Hawaii public school, is pushing for more instruction for U.S. students and backing it up with stimulus dollars.

With two lawsuits pending before U.S. District Judge David Ezra, the crisis could get worse; after all the years of hell we went through digging out from under the Felix case on special education, we could find our schools back under the control of plaintiffs attorneys and the federal court.

It's a sticky corner we've backed ourselves into, but there are ways out if we work the problem diligently instead of wasting our energy on finger-pointing and recrimination.

No. 1 is to recognize that the state's revenue crisis is real and there is no viable way around reducing payroll, which makes up 70 percent of the budget. Even with the savings from furloughs, the Legislature could still be facing a $1 billion deficit in January.

It would be unrealistic and unfair to give teachers all their money back while other public workers remain stuck with 8 percent pay cuts because they don't have schoolkids to use as bargaining chips.

House Finance Chairman Marcus Oshiro made clear that this won't happen, saying, "It would create problems in the work force. Can you imagine us making teachers whole but not doing the same for social workers, professors, lifeguards, custodians, the whole nine yards?"

No. 2 is to lose the false premise that the only options are to give teachers back all their money or live with the lost instruction time. There are other solutions.

One way would be to streamline the cumbersome process set by the Board of Education and Hawaii State Teachers Association that makes it difficult for schools to switch the furloughs from instruction days to nonteaching waiver days and holidays.

Another way would be to negotiate a buyout that provides teachers reasonable compensation for giving up the three-day weekends other state workers are getting.

For instance, the state could offer to reduce the teachers' pay cuts from 8 percent to 5 percent the same as University of Hawaii professors were offered to buy back the days off that fall on instruction days.

A restoration of 3 percent of their pay, in addition to the invaluable no-layoff promise teachers have that other state workers don't, would be fair compensation for getting the children back in class on Fridays.

To make sure schools can open, the same offer could be made to principals and other school staff covered by the Hawaii Government Employees Association contract and custodians and cafeteria workers represented by the United Public Workers.

The point is that if the parties have the will to stop letting our young be trampled by adult political warfare, there are ways out of this quandary without further drama, court orders or a special session of the Legislature.