Protesters demand end to furloughs
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Education Writer
Nine people, including three elementary school students, were staging a sit-in late last night in Gov. Linda Lingle's office in hopes of prodding officials to find a way to end school furloughs.
The governor's office staff allowed the group to stay beyond the 4:30 p.m. close of business, with the condition that no one would be admitted after that time and that anyone who left the office — even to use the bathroom — would not be allowed back in, a participating parent said.
Save Our Schools Hawaii, a grassroots organization of parents concerned about teacher furloughs, is demanding that Lingle negotiate directly with the teachers union and the state Board of Education. The parents say they are frustrated that Lingle routinely has sent aides to negotiate.
"Does she want to be remembered as the governor who did not care about school children?" said Marguerite Higa, a parent with Save Our Schools. "She's never personally attended any of the critical negotiations. How unimportant is this to her?"
About 40 school children, parents and supporters gathered in the governor's office at the State Capitol when the sit-in began about 2:30 p.m., said Higa, who was there with her daughter Raine, a third-grader at Noelani Elementary School in Mānoa.
About 12 children stood in the governor's office holding paper masks of Gov. Linda Lingle. They held up a banner that said, "Where Are You?"
Higa said their request to meet with Lingle was rebuffed.
By 6 p.m., the group was down to 16 people, including five students, Higa said. She said they hoped to stay as long as they could, but that the lack of access to bathrooms was a big obstacle.
At 10:15 p.m. the group was down to six adults and three children. Higa said they planned to stay all night.
"It's so important that they get back in school," she said earlier yesterday.
Sit-in participants brought cots, sleeping bags and bottled water. The youngsters brought their homework, toys, books and pillows.
"The kids have been surviving on chips and dried fruit," Higa said.
The state on Oct. 23 began a series of teacher furloughs that would cut a total of 34 classroom days this school year and next. So far there have been 13 furlough days out of 17 scheduled for the 2009-10 school year.
The group sent a letter to Lingle on Monday asking her to personally participate in negotiations and to be willing to compromise with the Hawaii State Teachers Association.
Following the HSTA membership's overwhelming affirmation of the $92 million plan between their union and the BOE to eliminate the remaining 21 furlough days this year and next, the union said it had no further plans to negotiate with the governor and have asked lawmakers to fund the plan.
Lingle has said the plan is too expensive, by about $30 million, because it brings back every employee in the public school system. She's proposing bringing back only "essential" employees — mostly teachers and school-level support staff.
Lingle has proposed spending $62 million to end the teacher furloughs, but the union says she has not brought her deal to them directly.
A handful of parents from Save Our Schools Hawaii met yesterday morning with the interim superintendent of schools, Kathryn Matayoshi, who assured them that the DOE is working with the HSTA to eliminate furlough days.
The group said they've also met with members of the Board of Education, but that the governor has not granted them similar requests for meetings.
"If we can get in to meet with them, we're pretty sure the governor can," said Jill Tao, who has two children at Noelani Elementary.
Higa also said parents are concerned that the governor is using furlough Fridays to advance her proposed constitutional amendment to make the superintendent of schools a Cabinet-level position.
Lingle recently said she would not release money to eliminate furloughs unless the state Legislature advances the proposed amendment, which would also abolish the state Board of Education.
"We are here to say stop playing politics with our children. What does that have to do with ending furlough Fridays? ... Gov. Linda Lingle, stop holding our kids hostage for your political agenda," Higa said.