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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Time for big concessions to end stalemate

Let's cut to the chase on furlough Fridays.

It's been six months since the furlough schedules were announced. The amount of time, resources and political capital wasted on this seemingly intractable stalemate leaving other critical issues on the sidelines is incalculable.

How can administrators credibly go after Race for the Top money when they don't even know how many days they'll have in the school year?

After all, the issues raised by taking away 34 instructional days over two years have not changed in six months. The hotly debated options to restore the days remain: Use noninstructional days, apply straight pay cuts, bring back only "essential" workers, spend more money.

There's really no good reason we don't have a settlement by now, unless you count sheer stubbornness. And that's not a good reason, especially since there are signs of progress.

Gov. Linda Lingle has increased from $50 million to $62 million the amount of money she's willing to spend to restore all furlough days; the union has offered six noninstructional days, up from zero. Nonetheless, talks remain stalled.

Last Thursday, Lingle released the "essential" list of employees she's willing to pay for; the Hawaii State Teachers Association says every employee comes back, at a cost of $92 million, or it's no deal.

This lack of flexibility is unfortunate; surely it's better to open school without a librarian than to keep it closed.

Even so, in her desire to limit the cost, Lingle has painted HSTA into a corner. If HSTA allows management to define some of its members as "non-essential," requiring them to take a larger pay cut than others, the union puts itself in a compromising position, with a threat of possible legal challenge from members who reasonably expect equal representation for the dues they pay.

It's the sort of bind that's all but unbreakable without major concessions. Here they are:

• Lingle should stick to her $62 million spending limit, but allow all HSTA employees to return, even if it means leaving some of the furlough days on the schedule. Since Lingle agreed to furlough days in the first place while failing to secure assurances on how they would be implemented she should be willing to take the political hit.

• Enough with the ultimatums. All parties, including the HSTA, the Department of Education and the Board of Education, should go back to the drawing board one more time and find other ways to stretch that $62 million, perhaps by extending the length of certain school days. But for starters, the changes should apply only to the upcoming school year. It's just too late to disrupt the current school calender to salvage the last four furlough days.

There's no sign the state's budget woes will disappear any time soon. If the HSTA expects to use furloughs in the future and they are the best way to cut labor costs while protecting a teacher's job, along with base pay and benefits the union had better be willing to accommodate the "essential workers" concept in its contracts.

Otherwise, the only options will be straight pay cuts for everyone or worse, layoffs. Neither serves anyone's interest, including the interest that counts the most the underserved public school student.